The first year of residency came faster than I had expected and concluded just as quickly. At times, it felt like medical school, with different rotations, adjusting to newly formed teams, dealing with the pressures of getting the right diagnosis and treatment, managing the unrelenting speed of rounds, and trying to make a difference for the better. I must be honest – there were times when I was counting down the days for the rotation to end so that I could begin focusing and working directly in the mental health field.
Now, in my second year, the pace has improved, and the rotations resemble the work and patient population that I chose during the match process. Nonetheless, I am thankful for the time spent and the knowledge gained during my intern year, because it is only now that I understand the true value of my first-year experiences and the need to continue getting a well-rounded medical education for the benefit of my patients.
During my second year of residency, I have come across multiple instances of health disparities for people with mental illness. While working in several inpatient units, I have witnessed delayed time of visit from medical/surgical or ob.gyn. consults, shorter evaluation times from visiting consulting personnel, and postponed follow-up appointments for general medical conditions. I remember one occasion when a patient with urinary incontinence waited 3 days until internal medicine completed its consult. These experiences remind me of the conversations I had in medical school. Some of my colleagues would say, “Psychiatric patients are difficult.” Others were honest in admitting that they were scared to even enter a psychiatric inpatient unit.
Medical comorbidities common
During one 24-hour shift, I was paged to the inpatient unit. A new admission from that afternoon was complaining of “toe pain.”
The patient had been admitted for suicidal ideation and alcohol withdrawal. He reported tripping over a concrete step 2 weeks prior to admission. Under examination, he had an open laceration with purulent, foul-smelling discharge, erythema, and edema around the wound. The patient had signs of cellulitis, had a possible fracture of the phalanx, and was at risk for osteomyelitis.
He had been medically cleared at another facility prior to his admission, where he also had complained of toe pain. At that time, however, he was told, “You are not here for that,” and the extremity was not examined during the medical clearance. I ordered a referral, imaging was completed, and antibiotic treatment was started for his infection. Unfortunately, this is not an incidental or isolated case; situations similar to this one have become more frequent than we would like for those with mental illness.
Often, psychiatric patients are overlooked and undertreated. We frequently are the only physicians who evaluate the patient and help improve their quality of life. After reviewing the literature, I found countless studies concluding that patients who have a psychiatric diagnosis often have increased medical comorbidity and even increased mortality. A review and meta-analysis published earlier this year suggested that “people with mental disorders often do not receive preventive services, such as immunizations, cancer screenings, and tobacco counseling, and often receive a lower quality of care for medical conditions” (JAMA Psychiatry 2015;72:334-41). The researchers also found that “mortality was significantly higher among people with mental disorders than among the comparison population.”
Focusing on mind, body
I knew I wanted to be a psychiatrist since my early years in training. Initially, I was drawn toward psychology, in which I completed a bachelor’s degree, but my world turned around after a conversation with the father of a high school classmate. He told me: “I commend you on your decision to want to help people; however, I would like to give you food for thought. If your goal is to be of service to your patients and provide care, it would be to their benefit to address not only the mind but also the body” (which, coincidentally, is the theme of this year’s American Psychiatric Association meeting in Toronto.)
At that time, I was weighing becoming a clinician versus a physician; after all, both have instrumental roles in treatment. Yet, those words resonate now in my life for a new reason, namely, that my duty as an advocate for mental health is not only to treat psychiatric disorders but also to work toward treating general medical conditions.
I have been fortunate to cross paths with mentors who helped strengthen my commitment to well-rounded care and a multidisciplinary approach for the mentally ill. I am thankful to have worked with Dr. Jill Williams, who stressed the need to treat tobacco dependence, and Dr. Anthony Tobia, who emphasized the need to rule out substance- and medication-induced disorders prior to treatment. I have had the pleasure of working with many other attending psychiatrists who not only focused on psychiatric symptoms and diagnosis but stressed the need to address the medical care of our patients.