Dr Frances is Professor Emeritus and former Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Duke University; Chair, DSM-IV Task Force. He is the author of Saving Normal and Essentials of Psychiatric Diagnosis. Twitter: @AllenFrancesMD.
I recently came across this compelling tweet: “An open question on mental health as a junior psychiatrist. What do you think I should learn and focus on to be a better doctor and advocate for my patients?”
Could there possibly be a better question for all people starting out in any field to ask themselves, and others, as they embark on their careers?
The 140-character limit imposed by Twitter forced me to offer only a brief reply containing five scant snippets of advice. This troubled me—his serious request deserves a more serious response.
Here it is—the 50 most important things I have learned in my 50 years studying psychiatry:
1. Your patients will be your best teachers.
2. No meeting with any patient is ever routine for them; so it should never be routine for you.
3. Focus on establishing a strong therapeutic alliance and healing relationship—the most important goal of any first session is the patient's returning for a second.
4. Helping serious mental illness is very much harder, but also much more gratifying, than treating mild illness or the worried well.
5. Validate that your patients are currently trying to do their best, but also set a tone of future expectations they will find ways to change themselves, and their world, for the better.
6. Always inspire realistic hope and always reverse unrealistic demoralization.
7. Follow your patient, not your preconceived notions, a supervisor, or a manual.
8. There are no bad or boring patients; but there are some bad and boring doctors.
9. Be as empathic, as caring, as involved, and as alert for the tenth patient each day as for the first.
10.Never lose sight of the practical struggles the patient faces in the real world and try to help them find practical solutions.
11. Don't be shy about giving advice when advice is needed.
12. Don't give advice when the patient can find their own way.
13. Include family, friends, other informants, and potential co-therapists whenever possible.
14. Be open ended enough in your questions to let patients tell their life stories; structured enough in your questions to get the specific information you need.
15. Try to create rare magic moments—things you say to patients that they will remember always and use in changing their lives.
16. Take your time and be careful—small mistakes can have major consequences.
17. Know the patient, not just the diagnosis.
18. Diagnosis should almost always be written in pencil—especially in the young and the old. Always err on the side of underdiagnosis—it is easy to later up-diagnose; almost impossible to erase a diagnostic error that can haunt the patient for life.
19. Use DSM, but don't worship it. I equally distrust clinicians who do not know DSM and those who only know DSM.
20. Educate patients about their symptoms, diagnosis, course, the risks and benefits of plausible treatments.
21. Negotiate, don't dictate, the treatment plan: allow the patient to pick whichever plausible treatment most suits them—with awareness that no one size fits all.
22. Do not join the bandwagon of diagnostic fads. Whenever everyone seems to suddenly have a diagnosis, it is surely being way overdone (eg ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder).
23. Watchful waiting is the best treatment whenever there is doubt or the symptoms are mild.
24. Placebo is best medicine ever invented and responsible for most of what appears to be “drug effect” when milder symptoms improve.
25. Severe illness is usually easy to diagnose reliably and always requires urgent intervention.