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Career Choices: Forensic psychiatry

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Editor’s note: Career Choices features a psychiatry resident/fellow interviewing a psychiatrist about why he or she has chosen a specific career path. The goal is to inform trainees about the various psychiatric career options, and to give them a feel for the pros and cons of the various paths.

In this Career Choices, Saeed Ahmed, MD, Addiction Psychiatry Fellow at Boston University Medical Center/Boston University School of Medicine, talked with Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law, and Director, Center for Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Appelbaum is currently Chair of the DSM Steering Committee for the American Psychiatric Association, and Co-chair of the Standing Committee on Ethics of the World Psychiatric Association. He performs forensic evaluations in civil and criminal cases, and treats patients with a broad variety of illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and adjustment problems.

Dr. Ahmed: What made you pick the forensic psychiatry track, and how did your training lead you towards this path?

Dr. Appelbaum: I was a debater in high school and college, and a fair number of our topics dealt with legal issues, which I’d always found intriguing. However, on entering medical school, I had assumed that I would need to leave those interests behind me. During the first week of medical school, though, we were all asked to select a behavioral science elective for the semester, and on the list was “Law and Psychiatry.” I didn’t know what it involved, but it sounded interesting, so I signed up. The class was taught by Dr. Alan Stone, a professor at Harvard Law School and the most important figure in the academic study of legal issues in psychiatry. By the end of the first class—on the Friday afternoon of my first week in medical school—I was so excited by the things we were discussing that I pretty much decided this was what I wanted to focus on in my career.

Later in medical school, I joined a research project looking at violence on the inpatient psychiatric units, as a way of broadening my knowledge of the field. During residency—we’re talking about the late 1970s, which was a time of great legal ferment about regulation of psychiatric practice—I persuaded my attending psychiatrist to join me in studying patients who were exercising their newly granted right to refuse treatment. That’s how Dr. Tom Gutheil and I started working together, a collaboration that continues today, with the publication of the 5th edition of our text, Clinical Handbook of Psychiatry and Law. I was also able to get foundation funding to do a study of patients’ decision-making capacities, a topic that has remained a focus of my research to the present day. During my final year of residency, I was able to create a chief residency in legal psychiatry, which allowed me to take law school courses, pursue my research, and supervise the more junior residents in their forensic evaluations.

Today, most people headed toward careers in forensic psychiatry take a fellowship after residency, but [such fellowships] were few and far between in 1980. So I went to Alan Stone for advice, and he said, “Go work with Loren Roth in Pittsburgh for 5 years, and you’ll be able to do anything you want after that.” I tracked down Loren Roth, then the leading empirical researcher on issues related to law and psychiatry, explained that Alan Stone had said I should go work with him, and somehow it all worked out. My first faculty job was with his Law and Psychiatry Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Ahmed: What are some of the pros and cons of working in forensic psychiatry?

Continue to: Dr. Appelbaum...


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