Hard Talk

A prescription for de-diagnosing


In 2016, Gupta and Cahill challenged the field of psychiatry to reexamine prescribing patterns.1 They warned against the use of polypharmacy when not attached to improved patient functioning. They were concerned with the limited evidence for polypharmacy as well as DSM diagnostic criteria. In their inspiring article, they described a process of deprescribing.

In an effort to study and practice their recommendations, we have noticed a lack of literature examining the elimination of diagnostic labels. While there have been some studies looking at comorbidity, especially with substance use disorders,2 there is a paucity of scientific evidence on patients with numerous diagnoses. Yet our practices are filled with patients who have been labeled with multiple conflicting or redundant diagnoses throughout their lives depending on the setting or the orientation of the practitioner.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego

Dr. Nicolas Badre

The DSM-5 warns against diagnosing disorders when “the occurrence … is not better explained by” another disorder.3 A mix of diagnoses creates confusion for patients as well as clinicians trying to sort through their reported psychiatric histories.

A routine example would include a patient presenting for an initial evaluation and stating “I’ve been diagnosed as manic-depressive, high anxiety, split personality, posttraumatic stress, insomnia, ADD, and depression.” A review of the medical record will reveal a list of diagnoses, including bipolar II, generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, unspecified insomnia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and major depressive disorder. The medication list includes lamotrigine, valproic acid, citalopram, bupropion, buspirone, prazosin, methylphenidate, clonazepam, hydroxyzine, and low-dose quetiapine at night as needed.

This is an example of polypharmacy treating multiple, and at times conflicting, diagnoses. While an extreme case, in our experience, cases like this are not uncommon. It was actually in our efforts to examine deprescribing that we noticed this quandary. When inquiring about patients on many psychotropic medications, we often receive this retort: the patient is only prescribed one medication per disorder. Some providers have the belief that multiple disorders justify multiple medications, and that this tautological thinking legitimizes polypharmacy.

A patient who has varying moods, some fears, a fluctuating temperament, past traumas, occasional difficulty sleeping, intermittent inattention, and some sadness may be given all the diagnoses listed above and the resulting medication list. The multiplication of diagnoses, “polydiagnosing,” is a convenient justification for future polypharmacy. A lack of careful assessment and thinking in the application of new diagnoses permits the use of increasing numbers of pharmacological agents. A constellation of symptoms of anxiety, concentration deficits, affective dysregulation, and psychosis may justify the combination of benzodiazepines, stimulants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics, while a patient with “just” schizophrenia who is sometimes sad, scared, or distracted is more likely to be kept on just one medication, likely an antipsychotic.

Contrary to most medical disorders (for example, tuberculosis) but similar to others (for example, chronic pain), psychiatric disorders are based on the opinion of a “modest number of ‘expert’ classifications.”4 While the broad categories of disorders are justifiable, individual diagnoses are burdened with high rates of comorbidity; lack of treatment specificity; and evidence that distinct syndromes share a genetic basis. Those concerns were exemplified in the study examining the inter-rater reliability of DSM-5 diagnoses, where many disorders were found to have questionable validity.5

A psychiatric diagnosis should be based on biological, psychological, and social factors, which align with our understanding of the natural course of an illness. A patient presenting with transient symptoms of sadness in the context of significant social factors like homelessness and/or significant biological factors associated with schizophrenia should not reflexively receive an additional diagnosis of a depressive disorder. A patient reporting poor concentration in the context of a manic episode should not receive an additional diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder. An older patient with depression on multiple antipsychotics for adjunctive treatment should not necessarily receive a diagnosis of cognitive disorder at the first sign of memory problems.

The cavalier and inconsistent use of diagnoses renders the patients with no clear narrative of who they are. They end up integrating the varying providers’ opinions as a cacophony of labels of unclear significance. Many patients have contradictory diagnoses like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Those inaccurate diagnoses could not only lead to treatment mistakes, but also psychological harm.6

Dr. David Lehman, associate professor of psychiatry, University of California, San Diego

Dr. David Lehman

A clearer diagnostic picture is not only more scientifically sound but also more coherent to the patient. This in turn can lead to an improved treatment alliance and buy-in from the patient. Assisting a patient in sorting out and understanding the vast arrays of diagnostic labels they may hear throughout their treatment can serve as a tool for psychoeducation, empowerment, and control over their own care and themselves.

How should a provider practice de-diagnosing? Based on the work of Reeve, et al.,7 on the principles crucial to deprescribing, and subsequent research by Gupta and Cahill,8 we compiled a list of considerations for practitioners wishing to engage in this type of work with their patients.


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