Of the strategies for stretching psychiatry's resources further in a time
of growing need, cooperation with primary care providers may hold the most
promise because it builds on a model familiar to both sides.
The departments of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of
Tennessee medical school in Memphis tested that hypothesis in June with their
first joint continuing medical education (CME) program. The program was an
outgrowth of the annual family medicine CME program, which marked its 40th
The two specialties each contributed 11 speakers to the three-day event,
which covered typical family medicine subjects such as cardiology, vaccines,
and type 2 diabetes, but also included updates on suicide risk, bipolar
disorder, ADHD, and depression in special populations (see Family Medicine
Docs Learn Psychiatry).
The program originated through a fortunate set of circumstances. Both
departments hired new chairs from outside the university in recent years.
David Maness, D.O., spent 27 years as a U.S. Army physician in clinical,
administrative, and academic positions before taking over as head of family
medicine at Tennessee in 2007. Psychiatry chair James Greene, M.D., had worked
closely with geriatricians to set up a teaching nursing home at the medical
school at Eastern Tennessee State university in Johnson City. After moving
across the state to Memphis, he decided the department of psychiatry needed to
build relationships with other departments such as pediatrics, internal
medicine, and family medicine.
Because both Greene and Maness were new to their jobs, neither was wedded
to previous ways of doing things, and both were ready to work together.
Maness said he and Greene meet regularly for conversations exploring
avenues for cooperation on education at all levels—for medical school
students, residents, and practicing doctors. Already, the family medicine
residency program at Tennessee includes psychiatric topics throughout the
residency as well as during specific blocks.
The two decided to add a major psychiatry component to the annual family
medicine update for the first time.
"Through teamwork, you can accomplish a lot across specialties by
working on joint endeavors to improve patient care, teaching, and
research," said Maness in an interview. "Ultimately, that benefits
the patient, and that's what it's all about."
That is certainly what it's about in Tennessee. As in other states, the
medical school's mission is to prepare doctors to serve the state residents
who support the school, and most medical graduates do remain in the state to
On some level, collaboration between primary care physicians and
psychiatrists is inevitable, said Greene. Family doctors provide a lot of
psychiatric care anyway, he pointed out.
That collaboration could take place on any number of levels aside from the
straightforward referral, said both Maness and Greene. Psychiatrists might
extend their traditional role as consultants in evaluating and stabilizing
patients, then send them back to the family doctor for longer care,
interspersed with occasional visits to the psychiatrist. Psychiatrists might
be fully responsible for procedures—like ECT—that only they can
handle. Or psychiatrists might work with primary care providers (or designated
staff members) using telepsychiatry to evaluate and treat patients in rural
One delicate question has to do with finances, said Najiba Battaile, M.D.,
an assistant professor of psychiatry, during a conference session. Some
primary care physicians may be skittish about referring patients to
specialists, fearing that they will never see them again.
The fear is not entirely unfounded, said Battaile. She recalled the case of
one mental health center that did not send patients back to their family
doctor, claiming that the reasons were continuity of care and also its patient
"Now I regulate psychotropic medications—even those prescribed
by the primary physician—but send the patients back to the primary for
lab tests before changing medications," Battaile said. "Primaries
are better able to respond to abnormal lab results."
Understanding the clinical and professional needs of the physician at the
other end of the line would work to the advantage of both, she said.
Greene believes that opening the borders between the two specialties can
"We must make sure that they have good current knowledge about
psychiatry and that [psychiatrists] are aware of what our role is," he
Greene also sees telepsychiatry as an emerging field for psychiatry and an
opportunity to expand the specialty's geographic reach. "It's like
bringing the university to a small town," he said.
Telehealth is no longer the stepchild of medicine, said Michael Caudle,
M.D., vice chancellor of health system affairs at the University of Tennessee,
Knoxville, in a conference session.
"It is also the part of psychiatry that is growing fastest,"
said Caudle. "My advice is to embrace this technology and use it for
specialist care, patient education, and videoconferencing to train medical
Part of Greene's broader outreach plan for psychiatry is connecting with
other parts of the medical school and the greater medical community in
Memphis. After a series of meetings with the CEOs of area hospitals, Greene
helped arrange for two residents to do part of their training at St. Francis
Hospital. Then he was surprised to discover that St. Jude Children's Hospital,
perhaps the best-known medical facility in the city, had "phenomenal
brain power, but no psychiatry." He's hoping to develop a palliative
medicine fellowship at St. Jude's within the University of Tennessee child
psychiatry residency program. ▪