No Treatment as the Treatment of Choice

In the October 3 issue of JAMA, Allen Detsky and Amol Verma offered “A New Model for Medical Education: Celebrating Restraint.” Restraint in medical practice is decidedly un-American. Not surprisingly, the authors are Canadian!

Detsky and Verma are concerned with both quality and cost. Here’s the essence of their argument:

…we suggest complementing health care cost control initiatives by transforming the current approach used in medical education that primarily rewards meticulousness of clinical investigation to one that also celebrates appropriate restraint…Clinical teachers who are role models could embrace a new approach. They could emphasize teaching restraint, both to improve health care quality and to acknowledge the professional duty of resource stewardship.

The worship of obscure diagnoses is a longstanding part of US medical culture. It’s exemplified by the “zebra joke,” which I first heard as a medical student in the early 1960s:

Two senior physicians are walking alongside a wall. On the other side they hear galloping foot beats. One says to the other – “what’s that?” His colleague replies “it must be a zebra.”

Sometimes the search for zebras turns up a real striped quadruped. When that happens it makes a heroic story. More typically the search involves “zebra tests” which turn up “incidentalomas,” abnormal findings that have no clinical significance, but which elicit further tests. Apart from the wasteful expenditures the search for zebras can produce, the process can create harmful complications – the side effects of unneeded biopsies or even surgeries, excessive radiation exposure, and more.

I’m a skeptic about medical maximalism and the search for zebras. In the early 1970s, supervising psychiatry residents who had been inculcated in concept of the 50 minute hour, I sometimes had dialogues like the following with my supervisees:

Me: What kind of treatment do you want to prescribe for the patient we’ve been discussing?
Resident: Twice a week intensive psychotherapy.
Me: How long would each session be, and how long would you want the treatment to last?
Resident: This seems kind of silly, but let’s say 50 minutes per session for three years.
Me: That would be approximately 270 50 minute sessions. Do you think we could attain the same outcome if each session was 48 minutes and we had 85 sessions per year instead of 90.
Resident: This really does seem silly. But if you insist on the question, I suppose we could attain the same outcome or close to it.
Me: So even before we look at the techniques psychoanalysts like Peter Sifneos have developed for briefer treatment, we’ve reduced the cost by 10% without meaningful loss of quality. Not bad!

In 1981 I felt I’d encountered kindred spirits, when Allen Frances, who I’ve posted about before, and John Clarkin wrote “No Treatment as the Prescription of Choice.” They weren’t nihilists about treatment, but they correctly noted that psychiatric consultants almost always recommended treatment for the folks they evaluated. Frances and Clarkin suggested a typology of patients who would do better without treatment – patients who were not likely to benefit and for whom treatment might inadvertently be harmful.

As a student, some of the old timers I learned from taught me about the curative impact of “tincture of time.” Some conditions will get better on their own if the patient is approached in an optimistic spirit and is willing to allow some time to pass. In non-acute situations where it’s not clear what is going on, applying “tincture of time” can be a good diagnostic and therapeutic approach.

Sometimes patients push for this kind of low-interventionist approach. Many years ago I saw a young man who had briefly been hospitalized for what looked like an episode of schizophrenia. I suggested that we start an antipsychotic medication. He objected. He was convinced that the episode came from a recreational drug he’d used. We agreed to follow him – initially weekly, but ultimately every month or two. As best we could tell over the course of two years, he was right. We were both happy. With another patient whose history convinced me that she had bipolar illness, she made a similar argument and refused medication. I told her that I wasn’t a worrier, but I was worried about her. I hoped I was wrong and she was right. We followed her status and got to know each other. Unfortunately, as I’d feared, she was wrong – a recurrent episode convinced her of that. But it worked better that she was convinced by her own experience, not simply by yielding to medical authority.

Detsky and Verma come across as wise clinicians. I’m on board with their counsel. I hope others join in. The model they propose would promote a salutary change in US medical culture.