Evidence-Based Reviews

Improving the recognition of borderline personality disorder

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Using questionnaires and identifying a gate criterion may lead to an earlier diagnosis

AUDIO: Listen to Dr. Zimmerman discuss the use of questionnaires in screening for psychiatric disorders in clinical practice.




Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is associated with impaired psychosocial functioning,1-4 reduced health-related quality of life,5 high utilization of services,6,7 and excess mortality.8-10 Although BPD occurs in up to 40% of psychiatric inpatients11 and 10% of outpatients,12 it is underrecognized.13-15 Often, patients with BPD do not receive an accurate diagnosis until ≥10 years after initially seeking treatment.16 The treatment and clinical implications of failing to recognize BPD include overprescribing medication and underutilizing empirically effective psychotherapies.14

This review summarizes studies of the underdiagnosis of BPD in routine clinical practice, describes which patients should be screened, and reviews alternative approaches to screening.

Underrecognition of BPD

The Rhode Island Methods to Improve Diagnostic Assessment and Services (MIDAS) project is an ongoing clinical research study involving the integration of research assessment methods into routine clinical practice.17 In an early report from the MIDAS project, BPD diagnoses derived from structured and unstructured clinical interviews were compared between 2 groups of psychiatric outpatients in the same practice.15 Individuals in the structured interview cohort were 35 times more often diagnosed with BPD than individuals evaluated with an unstructured clinical interview. Importantly, when the information from the structured interview was presented to the clinicians, BPD was more likely to be diagnosed clinically.

Other studies13,16 also found that the rate of diagnosing BPD was higher when the diagnosis was based on a semi-structured diagnostic interview compared with an unstructured clinical interview, and that clinicians were reluctant to diagnose BPD during their routine intake diagnostic evaluation.

Clinicians, however, do not use semi-structured interviews in their practice, and they also do not tend to diagnose personality disorders (PDs) based on direct questioning, as they typically would when assessing a symptom-based disorder such as depression or anxiety. Rather, clinicians report that they rely on longitudinal observations to diagnose PDs.18 However, the results from the MIDAS project were inconsistent with clinicians’ reports. When clinicians were presented with the results of the semi-structured interview, they usually would diagnose BPD, even though it was the initial evaluation. If clinicians actually relied on longitudinal observations and considered information based on the direct question approach of research interviews to be irrelevant or invalid, then the results from the semi-structured interview should not have influenced the rate at which they diagnosed BPD. This suggests that the primary issue in diagnosing PDs is not the need for longi­tudinal observation but rather the need for more information, and that there is a role for screening questionnaires.

One potential criticism of studies demonstrating underrecognition of BPD in clinical practice is that patients typically were interviewed when they presented for treatment, when most were depressed or anxious. The possible pathologizing effects of psychiatric state on personality have been known for years.19 However, a large body of literature examining the treatment, prognostic, familial, and biological correlates of PDs supports the validity of diagnosing PDs in this manner. Moreover, from a clinical perspective, the sooner a clinician is aware of the presence of BPD, the more likely this information can be used for treatment planning.

Who should be screened for BPD?

BPD is underrecognized and underdiagnosed because patients with BPD often also have comorbid mood, anxiety, or substance use disorders.20,21 The symptoms associated with these disorders are typically the chief concern of patients with undiagnosed BPD who present for treatment. Patients with BPD rarely present for an intake evaluation and state that they are struggling with abandonment fears, chronic feelings of emptiness, or an identity disturbance. If patients identified these problems as their chief concerns, BPD would be easier to recognize.

Although several studies have documented the frequency of BPD in patients with a specific psychiatric diagnosis such as major depressive disorder (MDD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,22-26 the MIDAS project examined the frequency of BPD in patients with various diagnoses and evaluated which disorders were associated with a significantly increased rate of BPD.27 The highest rate of BPD was found in patients with bipolar disorder. Approximately 25% of patients with bipolar II disorder and one-third of those with bipolar I disorder were diagnosed with BPD; these rates were significantly higher than the rate of BPD in patients without these disorders (Table 127). The rate of BPD was second highest in patients with a principal diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and MDD; however, the rate of BPD in these patients was not significantly elevated compared with patients who did not have these principal diagnoses. Three disorders were associated with a significantly lower rate of BPD: adjustment disorder, dysthymic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

It would be easy to recommend screening for BPD in all psychiatric patients. However, that is not feasible or practical. In making screening recommendations, absolute risk should be considered more important than relative risk. Clinicians should screen for BPD in patients presenting to a general psychiatric outpatient practice with a principal diagnosis of MDD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or panic disorder with agoraphobia. That is, I recommend screening for BPD in patients with a principal diagnosis in which the prevalence of BPD is ≥10% (Table 127).

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