Philosophy of The Big Society

David Cameron gets to be God!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Palliative Psychopharmacology - The insider's take on it

Written by Bruce G Charlton - psychopharmacologist

Making people feel better,given the limitations of the psychiatric perspective and the fact that many psychological problems are chronic, it seems legitimate to develop specialist expertise in using psychopharmacology to make patients feel better. But the idea of a speciality focused on enhancing subjective psychological states is one that is prone to raise suspicions among the medical profession. Perhaps from fear of creating addiction and dependence, doctors often display a reflex aversion to drugs that make patients feel better. Indeed, doctors seem more comfortable when persuading patients to take treatment that makes them feel worse. The general feeling is that ‘medicine is nasty’, and patients should need heavy encouragement to take what is good for them. If someone actually *wants*to take a drug, the suspicion is that they are probably abusing it.

But the experience of palliative medicine demonstrates that such attitudes have probably been responsible for needless suffering. Fear of addiction to opiates often led to preventable agony. It may be assumed that something similar will apply to the relief of other unpleasant psychological symptoms.

Palliation does not, of course, imply that people should be encouraged to‘get high’ on drugs: there is a world of difference between crack cocaine and Prozac. Palliation is about removing painful or unpleasant symptoms, not about inducing euphoria. Drug misuse seeks chemical ecstasy, palliation aims to remove psychological obstacles to fulfilment. Palliative psychopharmacology would seek to make people feel better in the way that analgesics make people feel better [5]. Nobody would call paracetamol a 'happy pill', but it is easier to enjoy life without a headache than with one. In this sense, paracetamol makes a vast contribution to human well-being, quality of life and happiness. The same applies to the treatment
of psychological symptoms.

PP patientsA new speciality will arise only in response to demand, so we need to ask which groups of people might benefit from a palliative approach to using psychopharmacology. The answer, in a nutshell, is those patients in whom alleviation of unpleasant psychological symptoms is more important than control of disease or public safety.

Firstly, there are people with significant psychological symptoms such as
depression, anxiety, panic, phobias or insomnia but who fall outside psychiatric diagnostic categories. The subjective ‘significance’ of psychological symptoms and the decision to explore pharmacological treatments are matters for individual judgement. Even ‘mildly’ ill patients may nonetheless experience significantly impaired quality of life, and may benefit from treatment [6]. Such patients fall outside the current medical framework, and would typically be direct self-referrals.

Secondly, there are people who do fit within the prevailing psychiatric diagnostic categories but would prefer a quality of life-centred approach to their management. Psychiatric disease categories are expanding and multiplying all the time. There has been at least a 1000 fold increase in the number of people diagnosed as suffering from depression over the past forty years [3], and since 1980 there have been many newly recognised psychological disease categories such as panic disorder, social phobia and most recently) female sexual dysfunction. Many people would fit one (or more) of these categories, but may nevertheless see themselves as suffering from unpleasant symptoms, rather than from formal ‘diseases’. For instance, the people who currently self-treat their own ‘depressive’ symptoms with St John’s Wort purchased from the pharmacist, rather than using a prescription of Prozac which comes only with the stigmatising diagnostic label of Major Depressive Disorder [3].

Thirdly, there are chronic psychiatric patients carrying diagnoses such as
schizophrenia, but in whom the public health considerations (such as violence and suicide risk) are minimal. Such people may be faced with long-term psychopharmacological treatment, and may prefer their management to be based on a principle of optimising the patient’s subjective well-being, rather than have this potentially confused with the conflicting duty to maximise public safety.

A fourth group might include people who seek to explore a range of potentially beneficial pharmacological interventions to alleviate ‘lifestyle’ problems such as sexual dysfunction, cognitive impairments (eg.poor memory or concentration), or the psychological problems of old age. In other words, this is the point at which palliative psychopharmacology overlaps with pharmacological ‘enhancement’ technologies, including the ‘smart drugs’. Given the under-developed state of knowledge in these areas, such management might be considered a form of expert-supervised self-experimentation.

Palliative psychopharmacologists, if they existed, would be specialists whose focus was the palliation of psychological symptoms, principally by psychopharmacological means but also using whatever other methods may be effective - perhaps cognitive-behavioural therapy, for instance. PPs would develop expertise in detailed history taking concerning subjective states (phenomenology), and would be knowledgeable about drugs and their side effects. This combination would be expected to generate a new kind of understanding of a currently neglected area concerning the psychological
effects of drugs - the question of ‘how drugs make you feel’.

If the patients subjective well being were to become the focus of management, this would imply that the patient must have a decisive role - since each patient is the unchallenged expert in their own state of well-being. Again there is an analogy with palliative medicine, in which one of the breakthroughs in the treatment of pain has been patient-controlled analgesia. In the end, the patient must be the arbiter of success or failure of a management strategy. The role of the physician is to inform, advise,and guard against potential disaster (eg. drug contraindications, dangerous
interactions, dependence and addiction).

When psychological palliation is the aim, it is likely that longer and more frequent consultations will be necessary than for psychiatry. It takes time to find the right drug for each person, even longer to find the minimum effective dose which offers the best balance of benefits to risk, and longer still to reach a judgement concerning the overall benefit versus harm.

The ultimate decision to be made is whether life is better on the drug, or off it. Establishing this with confidence may require several ‘on-off’ trials, using placebo controls when necessary.

Logistics Whether or not PP becomes a medical speciality depends on whether enough people want it to happen. But the logistics of getting a new medical speciality off the ground are complex. What seems to have happened in the past is that doctors with relevant training, experience and interest began to specialise in their practice, to advertise this specialisation (to colleagues, and the general public), and take referrals.

Once a critical mass of specialists has been attained, then such practitioners communicate and collaborate, have meetings, start journals, raise awareness, and set-up certificated training programs until eventually the process leads-up to formal ‘collegial’ recognition as a fully-fledged medical speciality. All this requires resources. In the case of PP supportive funding may come initially from patient fees, then charities and corporations, and eventually from the health service and health insurance payers.

Palliative psychopharmacology is an activity which is implicitly performed by many doctors already, especially in US private practice [9,10]. But specialisation has a considerable contribution to make. Specialist status would consolidate existing knowledge, contribute to scientific research and technical development, enable individuals to build-up and pass-on experience and expertise, stimulate broader education and serve as a focus for referral.

Currently, we have pharmacological experts to palliate death, but none to palliate life. It is time for that situation to change.


  1. people who experience life as a daily psychological hammering should not be forced to pay through the teeth for prescription drugs on the black market because of their GPs over anxious and controlling concerns about prescribing.

  2. Hi Norm

    If I were to play devil's advocate.... Not that I should have to but it has been a place I have often been forced into.....I would say that some of the GP's anxiety is about those layers above them that will 'come down like a ton of bricks' if they over step accepted mark.

    My friend has a wonderful GP..whose view is 'patient first; (sod the system). Rare and refreshing.

    I think my GP (the new one) is wanting to do it right but because they are a young doctor are maybe a bit too scared to go with the patient choice agenda. Not that there is a choice agenda for MH patients..although I keep trying to get one.

    I can only speak for myself in regards to palliative psychoparmacology (what a ruddy mouthful that is!) and think that it should actually boil down to 2 things 1)patient choice...and there being choices 2) Holistic care approach as mainstream rather than it being seen as some quirky pseudo therapeutic term that nobody wants to actually involve themselves in.

    I think it says alot about the system that I am prepared to take a risk on buying lorazepam over the net. It also shows that whatever the accepted standards are, that I don't fit within them. What's new eh?