Medicine Observations Systems

Representation Matters.

This post comes directly from a Twitter conversation I was in a few days ago:

Screen Shot 2018-04-22 at 1.28.25 PM

… though this topic has actually been on my mind for nearly a year due to some events that have occurred at work.

Many medications that were originally developed for the treatment of schizophrenia, called antipsychotic medications, are now used for other conditions, such as major depression and bipolar disorder. (The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this post. However, I will comment that this is why the “serotonin theory” of depression should really be called the “serotonin hypothesis“.) Several antipsychotic medications come not only in pill form, but are also available in long-acting injectable forms. Instead of swallowing pills everyday, some people receive an injection of medication once every few weeks or once a month. These medications are injected into shoulder or butt muscle.

Some people prefer to receive injections because that means that they don’t to remember to take pills everyday. Many people who accept long-acting injectable medications do well. No one would guess that they have had experiences hearing voices or believing fixed, false ideas. Some of these individuals report that these medications have saved their lives.

Some people, in varying degrees, are coerced into receiving injections (e.g., payee allowances—money—are handed over only after the individual receives the injectable medication; courts “encourage” individuals to receive injectable medication). Long-acting injectable medications are never used in emergencies, regardless of who is defining the word “emergency”.

Most people prefer not to get shots of medication, even if they know they are in their best interests. Many adults look away and wince when they receive vaccines, even though they know that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Most vaccines, though, are available only in injection form, so people don’t have a choice as to how else they can receive the vaccine.

So, with that, let’s look at the advertisements for long-acting injectable antipsychotic medications and any intersections they have with race. The target population is admittedly small: Only around 1% of the population has a diagnosis of schizophrenia at any given time. (However, if you’re part of that 1%, this stuff matters a lot.)

Here’s the landing page for one long-acting injectable antipsychotic medication:


We see what look to be white people with sporting equipment. I’ve drawn in a pink arrow to show the link that leads to the page about the use of this medication for the treatment of SCHIZOPHRENIA. If you click on that link, it brings you here:


Anything different about the people in the photo?

There are journal articles that span decades that show that schizophrenia is overdiagnosed in black people. One wonders: Do the ads come from the overdiagnosis? Or does the overdiagnosis come from the ads?

To be fair, if you scroll through the photos in that image, the other photos are of white people, including women. However, the scrolling does not automatically occur. The photo of the three men of color is what you see when you click on “schizophrenia” from the main page.

So what happens if you click on “schizoaffective disorder” from the page for schizophrenia? (Curious that there isn’t a link to schizoaffective disorder on the main page.) This shows up:


Only women for a psychotic disorder that also features mood symptoms, huh? (Side note: There’s ongoing debate within psychiatry whether schizoaffective disorder is even a valid condition. Meaning, psychiatric researchers are still arguing about whether this condition even exists. This is a topic for another post.)

“Oh, Maria,” you might be thinking. “You’re reading too much into this. It’s just one ad for one medication.”

Okay, let’s look at another long-acting injectable antipsychotic medication. How about this landing page?


Note the comment in the bottom right-hand corner: “Model portrayals.” Meaning, the company chose these specific images for these specific diagnoses.

The “schizophrenia” link takes you to a page that has scrollable photos: Two women with less melanin and a man with more melanin. The “bipolar” link has two scrollable photos: One light-skinned woman and a darker-skinned man. Maybe there’s something there; maybe there’s not.

Here’s another one for essentially the same medication, but with a different manufacturer:


Okay, so this photo assortment seems to strike a more even racial balance. I won’t nitpick further on this one.

Let’s go to the longest-acting injectable antipsychotic medication on the market right now, an injection that is administered once every three months:


Oh goodness.

If you click through the “Go to videos” link, there are three video vignettes. Two of the individuals are black. Again, one wonders: Do the ads come from the clinical diagnosis? Or does the overdiagnosis come from the ads?

The other long-acting injectable antipsychotic medications are now available as generic formulations, so their websites are full of text. My efforts to find past advertisements, commercials, and press kits for them yielded no images. I find that interesting, too.

To be clear, these ads comprise a small sample and are for a specific form of medication. I don’t know what advertisements look like for all other psychiatric medications. Maybe I am reading too much into these websites. However, when (1) local, regional, and national data indicate that people of color, particularly African Americans, are more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, (2) medications used to treat schizophrenia often have significant side effects of sedation and lethargy, and (3) these medications are available in long-acting forms, it makes me wonder.

Education Medicine Nonfiction Reflection Systems

I Have No Plan.

We learn about SOAP notes early in medical school:

S = Subjective, or what the person reports to you

O = Objective, or the data you gather from the person (vital signs, physical exam, lab studies, etc.)[1. We’ll put aside for now the discussion of the problems with labelling these sections “Subjective” and “Objective”.]

A = Assessment (a diagnosis and formulation based on the Subjective and Objective data)[2. We’ll also put aside for now the potential problems that arise at the intersection of billing and diagnosis.]

P = Plan (the next steps or recommendations that occur as a result of the Assessment)

Most medical notes, regardless of specialty, setting, or length, follow this SOAP format.

While recently typing up some notes, I blurted to my colleague, “What I really want to write under the ‘Plan’ section of my note is, ‘I have no plan’. Can I do that?”

Sometimes the Plan is direct and clear:

S: Mr. Doe reports that he hasn’t heard voices in three days. He finds it easier to read books. He denies side effects from medicine.

O: He isn’t talking to someone who isn’t there. He’s not demonstrating tremors. He’s showing more emotional expression in his face.

A: A psychotic disorder that could be due to This, That, or The Other Things.

P: No changes in medication. Continue to encourage activities he enjoys. Cheerlead his ongoing efforts to monitor his own progress. Follow up in a few weeks.

Sometimes I have a Plan, but it’s not a Plan I write down because the next steps or recommendations are beyond our control:

S: Ms. Doe reports that she uses methamphetamine to help her stay awake at night. She fears that if she falls asleep, men will hit or rape her. She still hears voices. They have gotten more intense since she left her foster family a year ago, as a member of the foster family was molesting her.

O: She’s distracted, looks exhausted, and, since she doesn’t have a safe place to stay, has little interest in reducing or stopping her use of methamphetamine.

A: Methamphetamine use disorder. Some flavor of a trauma- or stressor-related disorder. Maybe an anxiety disorder? Maybe a psychotic disorder that could be due to This, That, or The Other Things?

P: (1) Ensure that people have safe places to live. (2) Stop human beings from sexually assaulting other human beings. (3) Instill proper ethics and morals into all of humanity.

Then, there are times when the Plan doesn’t include concrete steps that will guarantee forward movement:

S: Mr. Doe was reluctant to talk to me. He only shared that his words are potent and, if he misspeaks, my face will melt off. He said that he doesn’t want to hurt me or anyone else with his power. My efforts to inform him that my face will remain intact were unsuccessful.

O: He’s eating, he’s sleeping, he avoids other people, and this is the most he’s spoken to anyone.

A: Probably a psychotic disorder due to This, That, or The Other Things?

P: ???

Since I have to write something, the Plan in these situations usually looks like this:


P: Continue to build rapport as tolerated. Gather more history. Will try to talk to him again in X amount of time.

The most difficult notes to write are those when I know I have no plan. This is distinctly different from not knowing what the Plan should be. (This is a function of time and experience, of knowing what I don’t know.) These situations usually involve a combination of the last two situations I described:

S: Ms. Doe said that there is a dead baby inside of her. Records state that she has reported this for the past four years, though there is no evidence that she has been or is pregnant. She was the victim of a significant assault five years ago; she sustained head trauma from this event, which many believe is the cause of her erroneous belief. She visits emergency departments multiple times a week due to her belief that there is a dead baby inside of her. She has assaulted both of her parents multiple times, so they have filed “no contact” orders against her. Because she now has no place to live and her anxiety about a dead baby inside of her persists, her behaviors sometimes result in law enforcement encounters, which land her in jail. She has avoided psychiatric services because she insists that her belief is true.

O: When she does talk, she speaks with dread and grief about a dead baby inside of her. Other times, she screams, demanding that people leave her alone. When she menstruates, she smears the blood all over herself while crying, mourning the loss of what she believes is her dead baby.

A: A psychotic disorder probably due to the head injury, but maybe due to Other Things?

P: … [I have no plan. I just don’t.]

The best Plans are those constructed with the person in question. Unfortunately, Ms. Doe usually doesn’t have a plan, either. So, I write down the little I can actually do:

P: Work with team to build rapport as tolerated. Find out what else she cares about. Work with other systems to create a plan to help reduce her distress without causing more trauma.

… and hope that patience and persistence will reward us in the future. Because sometimes hope seems to be the only thing we can do.

Education Informal-curriculum Medicine Reflection

Some Thank Yous.

To the intern on the trauma surgery service when I was a medical student: Thanks for occasionally wearing leather pants to work. Thanks for smiling and having a sense of humor despite having to round on thirty patients. Thanks for teaching us medical students while running a significant sleep deficit.

To the internal medicine resident who wanted to become a cardiologist: Thank you for indulging me and telling me how you dealt with the stress of medical training: You became still and tried to hear your heartbeat. When everything else seemed out of control, you focused on the steady rhythm emanating from your chest. That’s still something I do from time to time.

To the family practice physician who worked in the suburbs: I still don’t understand why you thought it was okay to pour liquid nitrogen on my head in front of the patient after you frosted the warts off of her feet. I mean, I do understand—you had power! I had none! what an amusement for you!—and thank you for showing me what a professional should never do.

To the surgical tech who was shaving the pubic hair off of a woman who was already under anesthesia: I don’t know why you and I were the only ones in the operating room. You knew I was there. As you were shaving her groin, you said, “You’re a fat bitch. You are such an ugly, fat bitch. I hate that I have to shave your fat ass.” She may not have heard you, but I did. As a medical student, I was too scared to tell you to stop. Thank you for showing me your cowardice and cruelty, as there are, unfortunately, others like you in medicine. I have since learned to speak up when people say violent things.

To two of my fellow interns: You stand out in my memory from that year. (One now works as a senior medical officer for a public health district in New Zealand; the other works in emergency medicine in an academic medical center in Texas.) We were brand new doctors running around the hospital and had no idea what we were doing. Do first, think later! I admired both of you for your intelligence and am grateful that we worked well together. I remember how you offered to help me when I was buried with neverending work. What I remember most, though, is how you made me laugh. When things were terrible—when the disease, dying, and death was crushing—you helped me smile when there was nothing else we could do.

To one of my medical students when I was an intern: Thank you for taking the time to write a letter to my residency director to express praise for my teaching abilities. You were both precocious and earnest: “I should know what a good teacher is, since I’m a medical student and many people teach me….” I hope you continue to write letters to those teachers who helped you grow.

To the male psychiatrist who took me to see a patient in a post-surgical setting: Thank you for teaching me who benefits from the questions we ask. We had just met her; she was weeping and told us she was uncomfortable. Out of nowhere you asked her if she experienced sexual abuse as a child. She answered yes. You then ended the interview and, while we were walking away, said to me, “I knew from her behavior that she was sexually abused as a kid.” I learned that I should never ask people questions just to show off.

To a female VA attending psychiatrist: Thank you for your enthusiasm for Cole Haan shoes. You were always so well-groomed—I imagine you still are—and your delight for shoes showed me that even sharp, warm attending physicians get excited when expensive shoes go on sale. You showed me that you weren’t just a doctor; you were also a person.

To the pharmacist who said little, but brimmed with wisdom when he did speak: I wish you were still alive. I think of you often: sometimes when I’m flummoxed over someone’s medication regimen, more often when I’m not sure how to best connect with the person in my care. You are the only person who has ever compared me to a bottle gourd: “Circumstances and people might try to bring and keep you down, but you’re like a bottle gourd in water: You pop right back up again.” After you died, I bought a bottle gourd to remind me of your high praise.

To the male psychiatrist who paid too much attention to me: Everything about that situation still makes me sad, but it helped me grow as a person and as a professional. I now tell trainees—particularly the women—that they must speak up, that they aren’t alone, that they don’t have to put up with bad behavior.

To the psychiatrist who worked as a commissioner for mental health: I wish you were still alive, too. I also think of you often: When systems don’t work and seem designed to fail, when people focus more on how things look than on how they actually are, when money seems to matter more than people…. I wish I could ask you what I should do. You often advised me to continue to ask questions, especially when I wanted to “do” something. I still heed your advice: If it scares you, then you should probably do it. Sometimes it is scary to ask questions, too.

To a male VA attending psychiatrist: Thanks for your candor while I was crying. “I had no idea that you were that upset,” you said. “You should know that you don’t show how you’re feeling. People probably have no idea.” You weren’t the first (nor last) person to recognize that I often don’t show how I’m feeling, but you were the first supervisor to tell me this to my face. You weren’t warm in that moment, but you were kind. And thanks for not freaking out when I started crying.

To my first boss: Thanks for saying explicitly that it’s okay to be mad. As an unintended corollary to the feedback I got from the male VA attending psychiatrist, you told me that it’s okay for people to know that I’m angry. “It shows people that you care. And sometimes people need to know that.”

To all the people who have allowed me to be your doctor: Thank you for your patience. The longer I practice, the more I realize how little I know. Thank you for your grace when I ask you intrusive questions. Thank you for your calling me out when I mess up. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to try to help you. Thank you for thanking me when you are better and don’t need to see me anymore. Thank you for teaching me new things and reminding me of things I still need to work on.