Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Which Medicines and When: Collaborative Process of Finding the Right Medicines

By Claudia L. Reardon, M.D.

Many patients have long and trying journeys on the way to finding medication regimens that work for their psychiatric symptoms. It isn’t always obvious why psychiatrists choose certain medications and avoid others for given patients. In this blog post, I will review the process by which a physician chooses a psychiatric medication. The more the patient knows about how the psychiatrist is thinking through the medication decision-making, the more active a role that patient can play in the process. 

Psychiatrists consider the following issues when prescribing a medication:
  1. Target symptoms. A patient might have many different symptoms, for example, depressed mood, anxiety, trouble with concentration, and severe insomnia. It is important to decide which symptoms should be addressed first, since it is likely that one single medicine will not help all of the symptoms. Doctors often prefer not to start multiple medications at the same time, as it otherwise can be difficult to figure out which medicine is helping or which is causing side effects. Thus, in a patient with the above symptoms, the physician might first choose to address the patient’s depressed mood with an antidepressant. Since trouble with concentration and severe insomnia could be caused by depression, it is possible that treatment with an antidepressant will help those symptoms as well. It is important to address the symptoms in the order that makes the most sense.
  2. Psychiatric diagnosis. The physician cannot simply treat a target symptom with a medication without knowing the overall psychiatric diagnosis. For example, depressed mood could be due to many different diagnoses, including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, drug or alcohol abuse, or medical problems such as low thyroid. All of these would have different treatments. Major depressive disorder would be treated with antidepressants, while antidepressants can actually sometimes worsen bipolar disorder. Likewise, if a patient’s depression is caused by a medical problem, it is essential that the medical problem be addressed rather than simply “band-aiding” the symptom of depression with an antidepressant.
  3. Medical conditions and other medications. It is critical that the physician be aware of all the patients’ medical issues and other medications they are taking. Certain psychiatric medications would be dangerous if prescribed to patients with certain medical problems. For example, some medications can worsen seizure disorders, cause abnormal heart rhythms, or worsen diabetes. Additionally, some psychiatric medications can have dangerous interactions with other medications.
  4. Side effects. Psychiatrists must consider how a given medication’s side effects will impact a given patient. For example, a patient who drives heavy machinery for a living should probably not take a medication that causes drowsiness. On the other hand, sometimes physicians can “take advantage” of side effects. For example, if a patient is sleeping and eating poorly, the doctor might prescribe a medication with sleepiness and increased appetite as side effects.
  5. History of response. If a patient or his or her family member has had a good response to a medication in the past, that might be a good reason to choose that medicine now.
  6. Patient preferences. Finally, and most importantly, the physician must make sure that the patient is willing and able to take the medication being prescribed. If the patient feels that the side effects are intolerable, or simply cannot afford it, it doesn’t matter how reasonable the choice of medication might be since the patient will not take it. The physician should check with patient to ensure they are comfortable with the medication being prescribed. Likewise, patients should not hesitate to speak up if they have concerns about a medication being prescribed for them.

In summary, physicians consider a multitude of factors in choosing a psychiatric medication for a patient. Ultimately, the decision about a medication should be a collaborative one between the psychiatrist and the patient.

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