Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy
DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Alone with his psychiatrist, the patient confided that his newborn had serious health problems, his distraught wife was screaming at him and he had started drinking again. With his life and second marriage falling apart, the man said he needed help.
But the psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Levin, stopped him and said: “Hold it. I’m not your therapist. I could adjust your medications, but I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Like many of the nation’s 48,000 psychiatrists, Dr. Levin, in large part because of changes in how much insurance will pay, no longer provides talk therapy, the form of psychiatry popularized by Sigmund Freud that dominated the profession for decades. Instead, he prescribes medication, usually after a brief consultation with each patient. So Dr. Levin sent the man away with a referral to a less costly therapist and a personal crisis unexplored and unresolved.
Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.
Trained as a traditional psychiatrist at Michael Reese Hospital, a sprawling Chicago medical center that has since closed, Dr. Levin, 68, first established a private practice in 1972, when talk therapy was in its heyday.
Then, like many psychiatrists, he treated 50 to 60 patients in once- or twice-weekly talk-therapy sessions of 45 minutes each. Now, like many of his peers, he treats 1,200 people in mostly 15-minute visits for prescription adjustments that are sometimes months apart. Then, he knew his patients’ inner lives better than he knew his wife’s; now, he often cannot remember their names. Then, his goal was to help his patients become happy and fulfilled; now, it is just to keep them functional.
Dr. Levin has found the transition difficult. He now resists helping patients to manage their lives better. “I had to train myself not to get too interested in their problems,” he said, “and not to get sidetracked trying to be a semi-therapist.”
Brief consultations have become common in psychiatry, said Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association and the president and chief executive of Sheppard Pratt Health System, Maryland’s largest behavioral health system.
“It’s a practice that’s very reminiscent of primary care,” Dr. Sharfstein said. “They check up on people; they pull out the prescription pad; they order tests.”
With thinning hair, a gray beard and rimless glasses, Dr. Levin looks every bit the psychiatrist pictured for decades in New Yorker cartoons. His office, just above Dog Daze Canine Hair Designs in this suburb of Philadelphia, has matching leather chairs, and African masks and a moose head on the wall. But there is no couch or daybed; Dr. Levin has neither the time nor the space for patients to lie down anymore.
On a recent day, a 50-year-old man visited Dr. Levin to get his prescriptions renewed, an encounter that took about 12 minutes.
Two years ago, the man developed rheumatoid arthritis and became severely depressed. His family doctor prescribed an antidepressant, to no effect. He went on medical leave from his job at an insurance company, withdrew to his basement and rarely ventured out.
“I became like a bear hibernating,” he said.
Missing the Intrigue
He looked for a psychiatrist who would provide talk therapy, write prescriptions if needed and accept his insurance. He found none. He settled on Dr. Levin, who persuaded him to get talk therapy from a psychologist and spent months adjusting a mix of medications that now includes different antidepressants and an antipsychotic. The man eventually returned to work and now goes out to movies and friends’ houses.
The man’s recovery has been gratifying for Dr. Levin, but the brevity of his appointments — like those of all of his patients — leaves him unfulfilled.
“I miss the mystery and intrigue of psychotherapy,” he said. “Now I feel like a good Volkswagen mechanic.”
“I’m good at it,” Dr. Levin went on, “but there’s not a lot to master in medications. It’s like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ where you had Hal the supercomputer juxtaposed with the ape with the bone. I feel like I’m the ape with the bone now.”
The switch from talk therapy to medications has swept psychiatric practices and hospitals, leaving many older psychiatrists feeling unhappy and inadequate. A 2005 government survey found that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients, a share that had been falling for years and has most likely fallen more since. Psychiatric hospitals that once offered patients months of talk therapy now discharge them within days with only pills.
Recent studies suggest that talk therapy may be as good as or better than drugs in the treatment of depression, but fewer than half of depressed patients now get such therapy compared with the vast majority 20 years ago. Insurance company reimbursement rates and policies that discourage talk therapy are part of the reason. A psychiatrist can earn $150 for three 15-minute medication visits compared with $90 for a 45-minute talk therapy session.
Competition from psychologists and social workers — who unlike psychiatrists do not attend medical school, so they can often afford to charge less — is the reason that talk therapy is priced at a lower rate. There is no evidence that psychiatrists provide higher quality talk therapy than psychologists or social workers.
Of course, there are thousands of psychiatrists who still offer talk therapy to all their patients, but they care mostly for the worried wealthy who pay in cash. In New York City, for instance, a select group of psychiatrists charge $600 or more per hour to treat investment bankers, and top child psychiatrists charge $2,000 and more for initial evaluations.
When he started in psychiatry, Dr. Levin kept his own schedule in a spiral notebook and paid college students to spend four hours a month sending out bills. But in 1985, he started a series of jobs in hospitals and did not return to full-time private practice until 2000, when he and more than a dozen other psychiatrists with whom he had worked were shocked to learn that insurers would no longer pay what they had planned to charge for talk therapy.
“At first, all of us held steadfast, saying we spent years learning the craft of psychotherapy and weren’t relinquishing it because of parsimonious policies by managed care,” Dr. Levin said. “But one by one, we accepted that that craft was no longer economically viable. Most of us had kids in college. And to have your income reduced that dramatically was a shock to all of us. It took me at least five years to emotionally accept that I was never going back to doing what I did before and what I loved.”
He could have accepted less money and could have provided time to patients even when insurers did not pay, but, he said, “I want to retire with the lifestyle that my wife and I have been living for the last 40 years.”
“Nobody wants to go backwards, moneywise, in their career,” he said. “Would you?”
Dr. Levin would not reveal his income. In 2009, the median annual compensation for psychiatrists was about $191,000, according to surveys by a medical trade group. To maintain their incomes, physicians often respond to fee cuts by increasing the volume of services they provide, but psychiatrists rarely earn enough to compensate for their additional training. Most would have been better off financially choosing other medical specialties.
Dr. Louisa Lance, a former colleague of Dr. Levin’s, practices the old style of psychiatry from an office next to her house, 14 miles from Dr. Levin’s office. She sees new patients for 90 minutes and schedules follow-up appointments for 45 minutes. Everyone gets talk therapy. Cutting ties with insurers was frightening since it meant relying solely on word-of-mouth, rather than referrals within insurers’ networks, Dr. Lance said, but she cannot imagine seeing patients for just 15 minutes. She charges $200 for most appointments and treats fewer patients in a week than Dr. Levin treats in a day.
“Medication is important,” she said, “but it’s the relationship that gets people better.”
Dr. Levin’s initial efforts to get insurers to reimburse him and persuade his clients to make their co-payments were less than successful. His office assistants were so sympathetic to his tearful patients that they often failed to collect. So in 2004, he begged his wife, Laura Levin — a licensed talk therapist herself, as a social worker — to take over the business end of the practice.
Ms. Levin created accounting systems, bought two powerful computers, licensed a computer scheduling program from a nearby hospital and hired independent contractors to haggle with insurers and call patients to remind them of appointments. She imposed a variety of fees on patients: $50 for a missed appointment, $25 for a faxed prescription refill and $10 extra for a missed co-payment.
As soon as a patient arrives, Ms. Levin asks firmly for a co-payment, which can be as much as $50. She schedules follow-up appointments without asking for preferred times or dates because she does not want to spend precious minutes as patients search their calendars. If patients say they cannot make the appointments she scheduled, Ms. Levin changes them.
“This is about volume,” she said, “and if we spend two minutes extra or five minutes extra with every one of 40 patients a day, that means we’re here two hours longer every day. And we just can’t do it.”
She said that she would like to be more giving of herself, particularly to patients who are clearly troubled. But she has disciplined herself to confine her interactions to the business at hand. “The reality is that I’m not the therapist anymore,” she said, words that echoed her husband’s.
Drawing the Line
Ms. Levin, 63, maintains a lengthy waiting list, and many of the requests are heartbreaking. On a January day, a pregnant mother of a 3-year-old called to say that her husband was so depressed he could not rouse himself from bed. Could he have an immediate appointment? Dr. Levin’s first opening was a month away.
“I get a call like that every day, and I find it really distressing,” Ms. Levin said. “But do we work 12 hours every day instead of 11? At some point, you have to make a choice.”
Initial consultations are 45 minutes, while second and later visits are 15. In those first 45 minutes, Dr. Levin takes extensive medical, psychiatric and family histories. He was trained to allow patients to tell their stories in their own unhurried way with few interruptions, but now he asks a rapid-fire series of questions in something akin to a directed interview. Even so, patients sometimes fail to tell him their most important symptoms until the end of the allotted time.
“There was a guy who came in today, a 56-year-old man with a series of business failures who thinks he has A.D.D.,” or attention deficit disorder, Dr. Levin said. “So I go through the whole thing and ask a series of questions about A.D.D., and it’s not until the very end when he says, ‘On Oct. 28, I thought life was so bad, I was thinking about killing myself.’ ”
With that, Dr. Levin began to consider an entirely different diagnosis from the man’s pattern of symptoms: excessive worry, irritability, difficulty falling asleep, muscle tension in his back and shoulders, persistent financial woes, the early death of his father, the disorganization of his mother.
“The thread that runs throughout this guy’s life is anxiety, not A.D.D. — although anxiety can impair concentration,” said Dr. Levin, who prescribed an antidepressant that he hoped would moderate the man’s anxiety. And he pressed the patient to see a therapist, advice patients frequently ignore. The visit took 55 minutes, putting Dr. Levin behind schedule.
In 15-minute consultations, Dr. Levin asks for quick updates on sleep, mood, energy, concentration, appetite, irritability and problems like sexual dysfunction that can result from psychotropic medications.
“And people want to tell me about what’s going on in their lives as far as stress,” Dr. Levin said, “and I’m forced to keep saying: ‘I’m not your therapist. I’m not here to help you figure out how to get along with your boss, what you do that’s self-defeating, and what alternative choices you have.’ ”
Dr. Levin, wearing no-iron khakis, a button-down blue shirt with no tie, blue blazer and loafers, had a cheery greeting for his morning patients before ushering them into his office. Emerging 15 minutes later after each session, he would walk into Ms. Levin’s adjoining office to pick up the next chart, announce the name of the patient in the waiting room and usher that person into his office.
He paused at noon to spend 15 minutes eating an Asian chicken salad with Ramen noodles. He got halfway through the salad when an urgent call from a patient made him put down his fork, one of about 20 such calls he gets every day.
By afternoon, he had dispensed with the cheery greetings. At 6 p.m., his waiting room empty, Dr. Levin heaved a sigh after emerging from his office with his 39th patient. Then the bell on his entry door tinkled again, and another patient came up the stairs.
“Oh, I thought I was done,” Dr. Levin said, disappointed. Ms. Levin handed him the last patient’s chart.
The Levins said they did not know how long they could work 11-hour days. “And if the stock market hadn’t gone down two years ago, we probably wouldn’t be working this hard now,” Ms. Levin said.
Dr. Levin said that the quality of treatment he offers was poorer than when he was younger. For instance, he was trained to adopt an unhurried analytic calm during treatment sessions. “But my office is like a bus station now,” he said. “How can I have an analytic calm?”
And years ago, he often saw patients 10 or more times before arriving at a diagnosis. Now, he makes that decision in the first 45-minute visit. “You have to have a diagnosis to get paid,” he said with a shrug. “I play the game.”
In interviews, six of Dr. Levin’s patients — their identities, like those of the other patients, are being withheld to protect their privacy — said they liked him despite the brief visits. “I don’t need a half-hour or an hour to talk,” said a stone mason who has panic attacks and depression and is prescribed an antidepressant. “Just give me some medication, and that’s it. I’m O.K.”
Another patient, a licensed therapist who has post-partum depression worsened by several miscarriages, said she sees Dr. Levin every four weeks, which is as often as her insurer will pay for the visits. Dr. Levin has prescribed antidepressants as well as drugs to combat anxiety. She also sees a therapist, “and it’s really, really been helping me, especially with my anxiety,” she said.
She said she likes Dr. Levin and feels that he listens to her.
Dr. Levin expressed some astonishment that his patients admire him as much as they do.
“The sad thing is that I’m very important to them, but I barely know them,” he said. “I feel shame about that, but that’s probably because I was trained in a different era.”
The Levins’s youngest son, Matthew, is now training to be a psychiatrist, and Dr. Donald Levin said he hoped that his son would not feel his ambivalence about their profession since he will not have experienced an era when psychiatrists lavished time on every patient. Before the 1920s, many psychiatrists were stuck in asylums treating confined patients covered in filth, so most of the 20th century was unusually good for the profession.
In a telephone interview from the University of California, Irvine, where he is completing the last of his training to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Matthew Levin said, “I’m concerned that I may be put in a position where I’d be forced to sacrifice patient care to make a living, and I’m hoping to avoid that.”