Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

The counselor’s role in assessing and treating medical symptoms and diagnoses

By Jori A. Berger-Greenstein April 4, 2018

Take a moment to imagine the following scene, with you as the protagonist: A few days ago, you woke, went for a run, had breakfast and headed to work, where you attended a committee meeting. The next thing you remember is lying in a hospital bed and being told that you had a stroke. You seem unable to move or feel one of your legs.

You are in a double room with an elderly man who has had many relatives and friends visit, although he seems not to be doing well. You’re not sure, however, because you feel foggy. Is this a side effect of the medication they keep giving you?

You are dressed in a hospital johnny and confined to bed. A nurse checks your vital signs on the hour, often waking you when you’re sleeping. An intravenous tube in your arm is connected to a bag with some sort of liquid in it, and you are hooked up to monitors, although you’re uncertain of what they are monitoring. Beepers sound regularly, prompting the nurses to come check you, look at the monitors or change out the bag.

A doctor visits in the mornings, along with a group of medical students, reminding you of Grey’s Anatomy, complete with looks back and forth and eye-rolling. They talk among themselves as if you aren’t there, using medical jargon that you don’t understand. Your family members are anxious and tearful. You hear them talking to the doctor about transferring you to another facility because your insurance won’t continue to cover your stay in the hospital. You also hear your spouse on the phone with relatives who live across the country but want to come see you.

As the patient, how might you be feeling? What might you be thinking?

Now imagine that instead of being the patient, you are a mental health provider called in to assess the patient for depression. How might you respond?

The above scenario and others similar to it are commonplace for many providers who operate in the field of behavioral medicine, which the Society of Behavioral Medicine defines as the “interdisciplinary field concerned with the development and integration of behavioral, psychosocial and biomedical science knowledge and techniques relevant to the understanding of health and illness, and the application of this knowledge and these techniques to prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.”

As recognition of the psychological and behavioral factors involved in medical illness has increased, so has our ability as mental health counselors to serve a valuable function in patient care. Providers and researchers alike now recognize the importance of approaching health care more holistically rather than compartmentalizing medical versus psychological well-being.

Understanding context

Primary care providers, the first stop for most people’s health-related complaints, operate under ever-increasing pressures to provide care for more people in less time. The average visit lasts 10 to 15 minutes, with the goal of assessing presenting symptoms (typically while simultaneously entering patient information into a computer system) to ascertain their cause and thereby provide information about how to treat them. There often isn’t time to gather the context of these symptoms, increasing the likelihood that important details can be missed. Likewise, there isn’t sufficient time to fully discuss the pros and cons of treatment options, the potential barriers to treatment and whether a patient is willing or able to follow through on the treatment recommendations.

In contrast, mental health providers often have the luxury of coming to understand patients/clients more fully. This includes understanding and appreciating the contexts in which patients/clients find themselves, understanding how these individuals are coping and making meaning of what is happening, and forming a trusting relationship with them, which is consistently demonstrated to be predictive of adherence to care and improvements in health-related parameters.

As Thomas Sequist, assistant professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, stated in a New York Times article in 2008, “It isn’t that [medical] providers are doing different things for different patients, it’s that we’re doing the same thing for every patient and not accounting for individual needs.”

It can be said that medical providers are trained to identify and treat symptoms in order to identify disease so that a patient can be effectively treated — which is, in fact, their role. In contrast, mental health providers are trained to treat people and illness — illness being one’s experience of disease rather than just a compilation of symptoms or diagnostic labels.

The process of assessing for mental health symptoms

A variety of mental health conditions are characterized by symptoms that overlap with those attributable to medical conditions. For example, symptoms of an overactive or underactive thyroid mimic anxiety and depression, respectively. Psychosis can mimic neurological conditions, mood disorders can mimic endocrine disease, anxiety can mimic cardiac dysfunction and so on.

Through training mental health clinicians to identify symptoms that may indicate a medical cause and knowing how to assess for the possibility of a medical workup, we can make earlier referrals for medical care. This, in turn, helps us to identify diagnoses more quickly, leading to easier/more efficacious treatment and better validating concerns.

One’s cultural identity and the resonance of cultural norms are also important to assess and monitor. For instance, a patient may be reluctant to engage with an English-speaking provider, may have a vastly different conceptualization of illness as punishment (in stark contrast to the Westernized biopsychosocial model) and may need validation for his or her reliance on faith and spirituality.

Collaboration

Collaborating as mental health clinicians directly with medical professionals toward the common goal of helping those who need our care can be invaluable. Examples include ruling out mental health disorders, identifying appropriate treatments in the case of comorbidities, providing emotional support to patients who have been diagnosed with a medical disorder and supporting physicians who may be overwhelmed. For instance, medical treaters may not know or understand the presentation of symptoms associated with trauma or the intricacies of providing trauma-informed care.

Being knowledgeable as mental health clinicians about medical-related symptoms, the language and jargon of medicine, and strategies for navigating the medical system provides us with critical credibility. This credibility can make or break our ability to collaborate as mental health clinicians.

Providing care

At its best, behavioral medicine functions as a prevention-focused model with three levels of care:

1) Primary prevention refers to preventing a problem from emerging to begin with. Examples of this might be establishing obesity prevention programs in public schools for young children or working with high-risk families to promote safety practices. The idea is to work with groups that may be more vulnerable to risks at some point in the future and to prevent those outcomes from occurring.

2) Secondary prevention involves working with people who have developed a problem of some sort, with the goal of preventing it from worsening or becoming a larger problem. Examples include working with people who are prehypertensive in order to prevent hypertension and subsequent cardiovascular disease or stroke, and working with people with HIV to increase their adherence to antiretroviral medication to reduce viral load, making them less infectious to others and providing them with more healthy years of life.

3) Tertiary prevention refers to helping people manage an already-existing disease. This might involve increasing quality of life for people enduring a condition that won’t improve, such as a spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis or late-stage renal disease, and supporting people in the later stages of a disease that is imminently terminal.

Transtheoretical model (stages of change)

Although mental health clinicians may be familiar with efficacious interventions for a given condition, we may not be perceived as credible if we do not understand and respect the client’s/patient’s motivation. No mental health provider’s repertoire is complete without an understanding of the transtheoretical model and how to utilize it to increase an individual’s motivation for positive change.

Assessing where a client/patient might be in the stages of this model (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) helps us to better target our interventions in a respectful way by taking context into consideration. Clients/patients in the precontemplation stage might benefit most from education and are less likely to be receptive to recommendations for lifestyle changes, whereas those in the action stage may not need as much of an emphasis on motivation. For a thorough description of the transtheoretical model, I would refer readers to William Miller and Stephen Rollnick’s seminal work, Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change.

Concrete needs and specific skills

The majority of causes of death and disability in the United States are those caused or treated, at least in part, by behavior. Nationally, the top 10 causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015), include cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, unintentional injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and suicide. Changes in lifestyle, knowledge/education and interpersonal support can be successfully utilized as part of all three levels of prevention. In fact, these are areas in which mental health providers can be extremely valuable.

Primary prevention: Data suggest that the single most preventable cause of death is tobacco use, which can dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer, pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease. Comprehensive smoking-cessation programs can be quite effective in managing this, as can education to prevent young people from initiating cigarette use.

Sedentary behavior (and, to a lesser extent, lack of exercise) is also strongly associated with health problems, perhaps most commonly cardiovascular disease and cancer. Concrete strategies for introducing nonsedentary behaviors (using the stairs, standing up once an hour, walking) can be incorporated into one’s lifestyle with less effort than a complex exercise regimen.

Getting proper nutrition, practicing good dental hygiene and consistently wearing sunscreen, helmets and seat belts are other examples of primary prevention in behavioral medicine. Motivating people who have not (yet) experienced the negative consequences of their risk behaviors is an approach that mental health providers are trained to provide.

Secondary prevention: The rates of obesity have risen dramatically in the past decade and are associated with a wide variety of serious medical complications, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer. If treated effectively, the risk of such complications can be reduced significantly. Examples of interventions found to be useful include aerobic exercise, dietary change (such as adhering to a Mediterranean diet and managing portions) and monitoring weight loss.

Although the specifics of these interventions may be most appropriately prescribed by dietitians and physical therapists, mental health providers can add value by helping to increase clients’/patients’ motivation and adherence, providing more thorough education about recommendations and collaborating with other providers.

Tertiary prevention: Spinal cord injury, most often caused by motor vehicle accidents, falls or violence, can have a devastating effect on a person’s life. These injuries are not reversible, but mental health providers can prove valuable in tertiary prevention efforts. These efforts might involve providing existential support; helping patients to navigate the medical system and ask for/receive support from significant others; and identifying strategies for improving quality of life and accessing tangible resources to sustain some aspects of independence.

Getting started

So, how might clinical mental health counselors “break into” the system? The ideal is an integrated care model in which mental health providers are colocated within the medical setting. This serves a dual function of facilitating mental health referrals and making it easier for patients/clients to see us because we’re just down the hall or up a flight of stairs from the medical providers. It also ensures that we remain visible to medical providers and allows for us to easily demonstrate our value.

Short of this, and for those who are less interested in focused work in behavioral medicine, the following suggestions may be helpful:

1) Attend trainings. This is a crucial first step before mental health counselors can ethically market themselves as being knowledgeable about behavioral medicine. As an example, with rates of diabetes increasing, and associated adjustment and psychological sequelae common, learning all you can about the disease and strategies for managing it provides you with some expertise and a valuable referral option. This is consistent with current recommendations for branding a practice.

2) Develop a niche. Your services can be all the more compelling if you have developed a niche for yourself that fills a gap. Research your area and the specialties that mental health providers are marketing. Is there something missing? For instance, many providers may be offering care for people who are terminally ill, but are there providers specializing in working with young people in this situation? Are people who specialize in working with pediatric cancer also advertising services to treat siblings or affected parents?

3) Being mindful of your competence and expertise, connect with medical providers and let them know that you are accepting clients. For instance, if you work with children or adolescents, consider reaching out to pediatricians. Research consistently finds that the only linkage to care someone with mental illness may have is through his or her primary care physician. Providing these physicians with literature about your services makes it easy for them to pass along your information to anyone they think may benefit. Mental health counselors can connect with medical providers via personal visits to physicians’ offices or through direct marketing to professional organizations. Note that approaching small practices may be the better option because they are less likely to already be linked with another service (hospitals often have their own behavioral health clinics/providers).

4) Connect with specialty care providers. These providers tend to have greater need of mental health professionals who are familiar with a given diagnosis.

5) Don’t be afraid to contact a medical provider treating one of your clients. This can provide a means for collaborative care and could also serve to gain you credibility, while indicating that you are glad to take referrals. Clearly, this should be done only if clinically indicated and only with the client’s permission.

6) Finally, be prepared to describe your experience, training and competency areas in a brief fashion. In the busy world of medicine, time is quite valuable. Mental health providers’ skills in waxing poetic can get in the way of communicating the essence of what we want to get across.

Ethics

This article would be incomplete without a mention of ethics. Behavioral medicine is a field rife with ethical concerns. Perhaps the most salient of these is competence. From an ethical lens, it is critical that we, as mental health counselors, recognize the limits of our competencies — that is, we are not trained in medicine and thus cannot ethically diagnose a medical condition, recommend treatments that could be potentially harmful or assure patients/clients that medical evaluations or treatments are unnecessary. All of these actions require the input and monitoring of medical treaters, who can guide our efforts in care. Patients/clients also need to be clearly informed of both our benefits to and limitations in their care. The world of medicine changes rapidly, and the half-life of training in medicine and medical care is short. Ongoing education is critical.

Let’s return to the scenario described at the beginning of this article. The shared goal for all providers — medical, psychological and other — is to provide efficacious and meaningful care in a way that improves the patient’s health and quality of life. By utilizing our respective areas of training, competencies and strengths, we can better understand the context of symptoms, which can guide our care. This is the cornerstone of providing ethical care.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Jori A. Berger-Greenstein is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and a faculty member in the mental health counseling and behavioral medicine program. She is an outpatient provider in adult behavioral health at Boston Medical Center, where she serves on the hospital’s clinical ethics committee. She also maintains a private practice. Contact her at jberger@bu.edu.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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