Will changing the names of psychiatric medications lead to better treatment?


Back in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association dropped the word “neurosis” from the DSM-III, so that if you had been neurotic, after 1980, you were neurotic no longer.

Pills spilling out of a bottle ClaudioVentrella/Thinkstock

At the time, I discussed this on my daily radio show. For those folks who were nervous, worried, fearful, and full of anxieties about themselves, their families, welfare, health, and the environment around them, a new set of labels was introduced to more specifically describe one or more problems related to anxiety.

For codification, and at times, a clearer understanding of a specific problem, the change was made to be helpful. Certainly, for insurers and pharmacologic treatments, it worked. However, it’s interesting that the word and concept, neurosis, which still is used by some psychiatrists and psychologists – although not scientific – does offer a clear overall picture of a suffering, anxiety-ridden person who might have a combination of an anxiety disorder, panic attacks, somatic symptoms, and endless worry. This overlapping picture often is seen in clinical practice more than the multiple one-dimensional labels that are currently used. So be it.

This all leads me to what I’ve recently learned about the Neuroscience-based Nomenclature (NbN) Project. According to a recent article in the APA’s Psychiatric News, the group’s board of trustees has endorsed a proposal that would change or revise the names of psychiatric medications so that the names reflect their mechanism of action – a move seemingly focused on a pure biological model.

For example, according to the article, the medication perphenazine would be renamed a “D2 receptor antagonist” rather than an antipsychotic. For depression, we might have a serotonergic reuptake inhibitor, according to the report, and of course, the list of changes would go on – based on current knowledge of biological activity. It’s true that in general medicine, there are examples where mode of action is discussed. For example, in cardiology we have beta-blockers and alpha-blockers, which are descriptive of their actions. As doctors who have trained for years and know the mechanism of action of various medications, we will understand all this. But in patient care, both doctors and their patients often understand and feel comfortable using descriptive terms indicating the treatment modality, such as antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, anti-inflammatory medications, as well as anti-itching, antiaging, and antispasmodic drugs.

So, I am concerned about these proposed changes. In an era focused on patient-centered care, where we seek to make it simpler for the patient/health care consumer, we might make it harder for the patient to grasp what’s going on.

It’s very important to keep in mind that we as physicians know the ins and outs of medications, and that even the most educated and bright patients who are not in medicine do not know what our education has taught us. For example, regardless of specialty, we all know the difference between left-sided and right-sided heart failure. Those outside of medicine, however, rarely know the difference. They understand heart disease as a rule. People in general might understand some general concepts, such as RBC, WBC, and platelets. A patient will speak of taking a blood thinner but rarely know or understand the differences between antiplatelets and anticoagulants. And why should they know this? How many of us know how or understand how to prepare a legal document or determine what type of steel is used in bridge construction?

Dr. Robert T. London, a psychiatrist who practices in New York.

Dr. Robert T. London

The point here is that I believe good patient care is keeping it simple and taking the time to explain what’s being treated, aiming to inform patients using down-to-earth, accessible language rather than the language of biochemistry.

It’s true that in psychiatry, wider use of certain medications than originally indicated has grown tremendously as well as off-label use. In light of that, the NbN idea is laudable. However, it would seem more practical to leave the traditional modes of action in place and expand our discussions with patients as to why we are using a specific medication. I have found a very simple and even rewarding way to explain to patients, for example, that yes, this is an antiseizure medication but it is now used in psychiatry as a mood stabilizer.

Another important point is the question of whether using nomenclature that describes the exact location of the problem is all that accurate. Currently, we know we still have a lot to learn about brain chemistry and neuronal transmission in mental disorders, just as in many medical disorders, there are gaps in our understanding of many illnesses and subsequent molecular changes.

Just as the DSM-III left behind the all-encompassing and descriptive word neurosis and the APA has changed labels in the DSM-IV and DSM-5, so the NbN project would change the nomenclature of current psychotropic medications. The intentions are good, but the idea that those changes will foster better patient understanding defies common sense. A better idea might be to continue use of both scientific names and names of commonly used actions of the medications, leaving both in place and letting clinicians decide what nomenclature best suits each patient.

It will be a sad day when psychiatrists become so medically and “scientifically” driven that we cannot explain to a patient, “I’m prescribing this antidepressant because it’s now used to treat anxiety,” or “Yes, this medicine is labeled ‘antipsychotic,’ but you’re not psychotic. It may help your mood swings and may even help you sleep better.” Now, is that hard? Is talking to a person and explaining the treatment no longer part of care? The take-home messages from the recent APA/Institute of Psychiatric Services meeting I attended seemed to suggest that human attention and care have great value. My father, a surgeon, always said that you learn a lot by simply talking to patients – and they learn from you.

Dr. London is a practicing psychiatrist and has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in and writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of “Find Freedom Fast” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019).

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