Psychiatrists often treat patients who have magical thinking. But I’ve also observed magical thinking in psychiatrists and other physicians.
I recently spoke at a conference about treating depression. I presented data from several large recent studies (STAR*D, REVAMP, PREVENT), all of which refuted hypotheses about how to tailor depression treatment to individual cases. I spoke of what Gary Sachs calls a “menu of reasonable options.” I endorsed algorithm- and measurement-based care, recommending TMAP as a reasonable and easily accessed algorithm. I cited numerous articles I’ve reviewed in the pages of BTP.
When it was time for questions, someone asked if I could please provide guidance on how to choose the right antidepressant for a given patient. For example, the questioner went on, could the agitated/retarded dimension be used to select the optimal drug? I could give an answer, I responded, but it would be free of science or evidence—since there is none. There have been many theories on this, going back to the 1950s—using behavioral symptoms, urinary metabolites, and more. But they’ve all come a cropper.
I’ve heard speakers endorse hypotheses as if they were facts. Some “experts” were well compensated by companies, who hoped their products would gain competitive market advantage from doctors believing groundless theories. Other speakers promoting magical solutions to unanswered questions appeared simply to relish the celebrity status pseudoscience provided.
I do not like to be ignorant. I yearn for the day when personalized medicine will be a reality in all specialties, psychiatry included. But for our patients, it is better to be candid, to acknowledge the boundaries of medical knowledge. Today the best treatment for a patient is the one the patient will adhere to. And the best doctor is the one who knows what he or she does not know.
- Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry