Short Psychotherapy

No, not "short term," short, as in short sessions.

Who says psychotherapy requires 45-50 minute sessions and a formal commitment? Although I cannot claim to know the history I suspect the almost-an-hour session originated with psychoanalysis, and the 45' session allowed psychotherapists to pack more patients into a day, and make more money. Modern psychiatric visits started out as psychotherapy sessions. The medication management piece snuck in slowly and now threatens to take over entirely. Despite the numerous advantages of independent provision of medication management and formal psychotherapy a compromise model offers a few advantages that might quiet some of its critics.

Since I ostensibly stopped offering psychotherapy I have noticed that the patient and myself often wander off the subjects of symptoms, medications and side effects, and almost as often I yield to the temptation to offer a systemic intervention, even when I know the patient is "in" psychotherapy in the more formal sense with a non-physician professional.

When I reflect, I realize this is nothing new. My family systems perspective lends itself to this less rigid approach to psychotherapy. I have done this all along. There is no real contract. Patients appreciate it, possibly partly because it's one-stop shopping and I charge no more for the added time.

There's always that dilemma over whether to charge a flat fee whether the visit lasts only five minutes or requires twenty five. The payer, whether a third party or the patient herself, likes to know in advance how much any visit will cost. I don't like to have to worry about whether the patient can afford an extra ten minutes with me. Besides, my fee always covers much more than actual time with the patient: office rent, staff, billing services, postage, telephone calls, malpractice insurance, contacts with other treating professionals, writing medical records, copying medical records, reading some other provider's medical records, ordering prescriptions, etc, ad infinitum.

CBT, which can be directed at specific symptoms and disorders also may lend itself to this model. Read High-Yield Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Brief Sessions: An Illustrated GuideImage removed. or the article in the October, 2010 issue of Psychiatric Times.

Pitfalls do exist:

  • The psychiatrist risks working at cross purposes to the independent psychotherapist treating the patient formally.
  • Without a contract patient expectations may exceed reality.
  • It's a lot easier to say "time's up" when you both see the minute hand on ten. In this model you decide when to stop based on when you want to go home or how many patients are in the waiting room. There's no entitlement to the full 50'.
  • Some patients may not feel permission to bring up a matter they want help with.
  • That matter the patient wants your help with might require referral for formal psychotherapy. But you can figure that out with the patient and steer them in the right direction.
  • Some interventions benefit from follow-up within a few weeks, but for medically stable patients the next regularly scheduled appointment may be months away.
The notion that psychotherapy must be an all or nothing proposition may prevent you from providing the best treatment to your patient. If you the psychiatrist include a psychotherapy intervention now and then, you may increase efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and your chances of success.

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