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Sideways Shrink posed a great question recently in a comment on my post "When A Thick Skin Helps." The question was whether or not physicians are allowed to hit a patient who tries to assault them.
Certainly, physical assaults on patients are not the standard of practice in psychiatry or any other medical specialty. Psychiatrists do undergo some training about physical management of violent patients: I remember in residency we had to get trained in "take down" and restraint procedures. As a group we practiced applying pressure point joint locks on each other in order to make a patient break a grip on us, and to do two person restraints to hold someone immobile until security could arrive. None of this involved any "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-type kung fu moves, there was no kicking or hitting or loud kiai karate yells. There was a lot of talk about the importance of being as least forceful as possible. Frankly, I'm not sure how much of that I would have remembered if I had ever been in a position to have to use it. The few times when I was actually assaulted by patients the incidents happened so fast there really wasn't anything I could have done. (OK, so the little manic lady who hit me with a stuffed dog really couldn't count as an assault, and she was already restrained in a geri-chair to begin with.)
But the real question is: will a doctor get into trouble for defending him or herself?
In situations like this it's always best, as one of my friends and mentors regularly states, to think clinically before thinking legally. Safety first, then legalisms. Do what you must do to protect yourself. Learn the security procedures for your hospital or clinic or school or correctional facility, and know them so well you don't have to even think to act on them. If no one orients you to security procedures on your new job, make a point of asking. (Free society employers are particularly bad about this, particularly in an outpatient setting.) Even when you follow the "right" procedures though, it takes some time to get help. By "time", I mean several seconds to minutes, and in that short time a lot of damage can happen. Yes, doctors can and should defend themselves from attack.
What are the potential legal consequences? (Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, anything I say can and might be wrong from a legal standpoint, when in doubt call your hospital counsel or malpractice risk management office.)
The consequences could be civil or criminal. An assault or battery charge could be filed by a patient, or a general tort (injury) civil suit could be filed against a physician. A malpractice claim could be made (I doubt anyone could claim that a physician assault against a patient would be a standard part of psychiatric treatment!) however in states that allow contributory negligence (a limitation on damages when an injury is caused in part by patient behavior) the physician's liability would be limited. Finally, the patient could file a board complaint against the physician. So even in the absence of a criminal or civil case the physician could end up on the wrong end of a long, drawn out and painful licensure investigation.
There are factors that could lead to a greater risk of legal consequences if they suggest that more force was used than necessary: if the patient dies or has a serious permanent injury, or if the physician has a chance to escape but chooses to stay and fight instead. And yes, gender discrimination may play a role. If the physician is a young twenty-something, male, six foot four inch tall physician weighing 200 pounds and the patient-attacker is a five foot, 125 pound grey-haired old lady, you could be in trouble.
Off the top of my head I'm not aware of any cases where this has been an issue, and in the heat (or rather terror) of the moment I doubt any doctor is going to stop and weigh out all the potential consequences. And even when the doctor has a legitimate need to defend himself there could still be legal consequences, which are not fun even if the doctor ends up cleared of all allegations.
If I come across any relevant cases or references I'll put them up, but that's what I think off the top of my head.
'Shrink''Antipsychotics' ('neuroleptics') have been proven to SHRINK the human brain... the frontal cortex, for instance... by about 1 percent loss of brain matter per year... There is horrific fallout from these drugs -So, 'SHRINK' is certainly appropriate.'Rap'Psychiatry, along with its partner in crime, Pharma has a RAP sheet a mile long, particulary in the areas of clinical research, done by psychiatrists... the "off-label" marketing of psychiatric drugs to children, Medicaid fraud... the 'RAP' sheet is quite long.
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And so now KevinMD has a post by a psychiatrist, no less, who writes about how to get heard by your psychiatrist and suggests doing homework and bringing notebooks to those 15 minute med checks. Good we have pointers here because of course we'd assume that no psychiatrist would listen. Dr. Raina writes:
From the APA, an announcement that my favorite TV psychiatrist will be speaking at APA. I'm there!
Tuesday, May 17, 2011 ; 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Kalakaua Ballroom, Level 4,
Hawai’i Convention Center,
Join us for our 10th annual Conversations event! This year’s very special guest is actress Lorraine Bracco. Famous, in part, for playing the role of psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi on the HBO television series, The Sopranos, Bracco has faced depression in her life. In 2006, Bracco began sharing her story of depression by including her experiences in her book, On the Couch. During the hour long interview, she will share her personal story of her fight, and success over, mental illness. Conversations is free to all APA Annual Meeting attendees
The setup for the book is interesting that they wrote fictional characters to explain how psychiatric patients are taken care of. For example, since Roy takes care of hospital based patients, his section talked about that. Clink is a forensic psychiatrist and she tacked questions like "What's it like in a prison setting?" And, Dinah is in private practice and she talked about issues like "What it's like inside the walls of a psychiatrist office during an appointment."Oh, but I cheated just a little and changed Roy and Clink back to Roy and Clink, just for our Shrink Rap blog (they've long ago outed themselves...).
I had to follow up on Dinah's post "What Makes A Good Therapist." (Note to Dinah: I put the punctuation inside the quotation mark. I'm getting better!)
While I agree that empathy is important, it strikes me that so many times psychiatrists are also called upon to be able to tolerate a lot of negative stuff: anger, resentment, bitterness and the general nastiness that can come along with helping people sort out the awful historical relationships in their lives. Once upon a time there was a fantastic psychiatrist blogger by the name of Shiny Happy Person who suggested that in order to become a psychiatrist people should have to pass the "F-You Test." In other words, you have to be able to handle people screaming and cursing at you. Somebody is going to suggest that only happens with my patients because I treat criminals, but I know this happens with non-criminal patients too.
How do you balance empathy with a thick skin? It gets tricky. If you genuinely care about your patients and want them to get better then it would be nice if they weren't nasty to you in return. But if nastiness does happen, it's your job as a psychiatrist to not let it bother you or interfere in treatment. This is particularly true in forensic work when patients can regularly place blame on others (or on you!) for what goes on in their lives. And when a correctional patient makes demands or threats in order to get something inappropriate from you, a thick skin must be replaced with Kevlar. For the patient's own good, you have to have the toughness to do the right thing to avoid harm. (Eg. "I know you'd really like to have some Elavil for sleep, but since you're over 40 and have coronary artery disease and hepatitis C and have attempted suicide by pill overdose twice and have no recent EKG or liver function test results in your record, I really can't give that to you.")
Prisoner advocates criticize correctional health care providers for being cold or unempathic, but I think they are misinterpreting a necessary and appropriate line that a good correctional clinician has to walk. I just thought I'd bring it up because this is also sometimes necessary for non-forensic psychiatrists as well.
Let’s also acknowledge that the general trend reported by the Times — the diminishing use of psychotherapy by psychiatrists — is quite real. Over the past decade or so, the percentage of psychiatrists offering psychotherapy to all or most of their patients appears to have dropped. One study — very selectively cited in the Times article — found that “just 11 percent of psychiatrists provide talk therapy to all patients…”1 This was based on a study by Mojtabai and Olfson,3 which found a decline in the number of psychiatrists who provided psychotherapy to all of their patients — from 19.1% in 1996-1997 to 10.8% in 2004-2005. The study also found that the percentage of visits involving psychotherapy declined from 44.4% in 1996-1997 to 28.9% in 2004-2005, which “…coincided with changes in reimbursement, increases in managed care, and growth in the prescription of medications.”2
But the very same study found that almost 60% of psychiatrists were providing psychotherapy to at least some of their patients. Also, the threshold for considering a session “psychotherapy” was set quite high in the Mojtabai-Olfson study: the meeting had to last 30 minutes or longer. But as my colleague Paul Summergrad MD has pointed out, common practice and standard CPT billing codes (e.g., 90805) specifically include 20-30 minute visits for psychotherapy, with or without pharmacotherapy.4 Furthermore, Mojtabai and Olfson acknowledged that
“Some visits likely involved use of psychotherapeutic techniques but were not classified as psychotherapy in the current analysis. Psychotherapeutic techniques can be effectively taught and used in brief medication management visits by psychiatrists and other health care providers.”3 (p.968)
This last point was totally lost in the New York Times report. When I used to see patients for “medication checks” in my private practice, I would sometimes spend more time providing supportive psychotherapy than dealing with the medication issues, if the patient’s emotional needs warranted it. (If the patient was seeing another therapist in formal psychotherapy, I would try to remain an empathic listener, while encouraging the patient to raise the issue with the therapist). Furthermore, in providing medication for some severely personality-disordered patients, it is often impossible to maintain the therapeutic alliance without understanding the patient’s self-sabotaging defenses. As Glen Gabbard MD has observed, “…psychotherapeutic skills are needed in every context in psychiatry” — including during the much-maligned 15-20 minute “med check.”5The cartoon is from the Wall Street Journal, sent to me by Moviedoc.