Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual is due for a revision. But what began as a group of top scientists reviewing the research literature has degenerated into a dispute that puts the Hatfield-McCoy feud to shame.
The latest installment in this remarkable episode of American psychiatry involves an editorial by Dr. Allen Frances, the chairman of the committee that created the current version of the the DSM, the DSM-IV. The editorial has not even been officially published (it is in press at Psychiatric Times) but already it has made the rounds of the blogs and is being read and debated widely. Now, the APA has just released this rather stunning response.
Those who are not in psychiatric circles might find their eyes glazing over a bit as they read these articles. But we are witnessing here something dramatic and important. Psychiatry is wrestling with its identity, and in the process is creating the next set of ideas that will guide how real people are diagnosed and treated for years to come. The stakes for everybody are high.
In his editorial, Dr. Frances criticizes the evolving DSM-V on multiple levels, and makes the following claims:
--The process of writing the manual is less transparent and less inclusive than the process he oversaw when he chaired the DSM-IV committee.
--The underlying science of psychiatry has not advanced enough to merit the kind of extreme makeover proposed by the DSM-V chairpeople:
"The simple truth is that descriptive psychiatric diagnosis does not need and cannot support a paradigm shift. There can be no dramatic improvements in psychiatric diagnosis until we make a fundamental leap in our understanding of what causes mental disorders. The incredible recent advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and brain imaging that have taught us so much about normal brain functioning are still not relevant to the clinical practicalities of everyday psychiatric diagnosis. The clearest evidence supporting this disappointing fact is that not even one biological test is ready for inclusion in the criteria sets for DSM-5."
--The main change being proposed—the official inclusion of a series of rating scales into the diagnostic criteria—is poorly conceived because busy clinicians will reject this extra paper-work.
--Other proposed changes in DSM-V will make it too easy to over-diagnose a range of conditions:
“The result would be a wholesale imperial medicalization of normality that will trivialize mental disorder and lead to a deluge of unneeded medication treatment--a bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry but at a huge cost to the new false positive "patients" caught in the excessively wide DSM-V net. They will pay a high price in side effects, dollars, and stigma, not to mentions the unpredictable impact on insurability, disability, and forensics.”
Frances’ article is compelling, not only because of the substance of his arguments but because of his clear and forceful writing style. With each sentence, you get a sense that this man has carefully thought through all of these issues and is passionately concerned about the future of his field.
The APA’s response, on the other hand, is a weird mixture of bureaucratese and mean-spiritedness. The bureaucratese I can understand—after all, this is a letter crafted by committee. But the nasty tone of the response is astonishing and undignified.
The APA gets off to cringing start by calling Frances and his colleagues liars:
“The commentary “A Warning Sign on the Road to DSM-5: Beware of its Unintended Consequences” by Allen Frances, M.D., submitted to Psychiatric Times contains factual errors and assumptions about the development of DSM-V that cannot go unchallenged. Frances now joins a group of individuals, many involved in development of previous editions of DSM, who repeat the same accusations about DSM-V with disregard for the facts.”
Wow. Can’t grown men have disagreements with one another without resorting to this kind of language? I might have started with something more like, “The commentary “A Warning Sign on the Road to DSM-5: Beware of its Unintended Consequences” by Allen Frances, M.D., is a thought-provoking critique of the DSM-5 process. While we respect and appreciate Dr. Frances’ leadership in American psychiatry over the years, we disagree with several of his points.” (Note to APA--send me all future "defense letters" for editing, at no charge).
After this, there are six paragraphs addressing some of Frances’ specific points. We hear that the DSM-V process has actually been “the most open and inclusive ever” and that the much villified “confidentiality agreement” was created to protect intellectual property rather than to keep proceedings secret. There is a defense of the usefulness of symptom rating scales: “Recent studies underscore the readiness of clinicians in both primary care and specialty mental health settings to adopt dimensional instruments on a routine basis.”
And there is a reasonable reminder of why some changes in the criteria are needed: “Clinicians complain that the current DSM-IV system poorly reflects the clinical realities of their patients. Researchers are skeptical that the existing DSM categories represent a valid basis for scientific investigations, and accumulating evidence supports this skepticism.”
But after a brief, not terribly convincing rebuttal of the merits of Frances' argument, the writers decide to conclude by getting mean and personal again. This time, they accuse Dr. Frances of being deceptive in not disclosing his financial interests in DSM-IV (he is co-author of one book that teaches doctors how to use the manual). Then, they opine that Frances’ real motive in criticizing DSM-V is not a desire to improve diagnosis, but simply greed.
“Both Dr. Frances and Dr. Spitzer have more than a personal “pride of authorship” interest in preserving the DSM-IV and its related case book and study products. Both continue to receive royalties on DSM-IV associated products. The fact that Dr. Frances was informed at the APA Annual Meeting last month that subsequent editions of his DSM-IV associated products would cease when the new edition is finalized, should be considered when evaluating his critique and its timing.”
In other words, Dr. Frances wrote his editorial because he was just informed that once DSM-V is published, the APA will no longer publish new editions of books introducing psychiatrists to the outdated DSM-IV. Somehow, I doubt that this was exactly a news flash to Dr. Frances.
It is disturbing that the APA and DSM leadership would accuse Dr. Frances and his colleagues of being greedy, deceptive, and dumb. Who do they think they are--bloggers?