Perceived Barriers to Accessing Electroceutical Interventions

Robyn Bluhm, PhD; Eric Achtyes, MD; Aaron M. McCright, PhD; Laura Y. Cabrera, PhD


February 07, 2023

Psychiatric electroceutical interventions (PEIs) – including Food and Drug Administration–approved therapies like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), as well as experimental interventions such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) and adaptive brain implants (ABI) – offer therapeutic promise for patients suffering with major depressive disorder (MDD). Yet there remain many open questions regarding their use, even in cases where their safety and effectiveness is well established.

Robyn Bluhm, PhD

Our research aims to better understand how different stakeholder groups view these interventions. We conducted a series of interviews with psychiatrists, patients with MDD, and members of the public to more fully comprehend these groups’ perceptions of barriers to using these therapies.[1] They raised concerns about limitations to access posed by the limited geographic availability of these treatments, their cost, and lack of insurance coverage. In addition, each stakeholder group cited lack of knowledge about PEIs as a perceived barrier to their wider implementation in depression care.

Eric Achtyes, MD

Our participants recognized there are significant geographic limitations to accessing PEIs, as many of these treatments are available only in large, well-resourced cities. This is especially true for DBS and ABIs as they remain investigational, require neurosurgery, and currently are offered only during clinical research trials. However, even for established therapies like ECT and rTMS, access often remains limited to larger treatment centers. Further, training on the proper implementation and use of these modalities is limited in the United States. Current requirements from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education state only that psychiatry residents demonstrate knowledge of these therapies and their indications, falling short of requiring first-hand experience in referring or administering them.[2]

Aaron M. McCright, PhD

Our participants also perceived the cost of these therapies as a significant barrier affecting a large proportion of patients who could potentially benefit from them. Another frequently mentioned barrier is the lack of insurance coverage for existing PEIs, particularly rTMS. Even when insurance covers treatment with an approved PEI (for example, ECT, rTMS), there may be a requirement to have tried and failed multiple antidepressant medications first. These insurance requirements may contribute to a lack of general clarity about when these treatments should be used. The psychiatrists we interviewed, for example, were almost evenly split between believing that ECT and/or rTMS should be offered earlier in the course of therapy and believing that they should be reserved only for patients with treatment-resistant depression.

Laura Y. Cabrera, PhD

Further, some psychiatrists we interviewed stated that they wanted more information about the appropriate use of these treatments. This is unsurprising, as the available guidelines for the approved electroceutical treatments are outdated. Although the American Psychiatric Association Task Force is due to publish updated guidelines for ECT, it has been more than 20 years since the current guidelines were published.[3] More recent guidelines, such as those issued in 2016 by the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments cite studies that were even then several years old.[4] For rTMS, newer guidelines are available, but they have not yet been revised to include recent developments such as the SAINT protocol.[5,6]

While useful, clinical guidelines do not provide all of the information psychiatrists require for clinical decision-making. They are only as good as the evidence available and to the extent that they include all of the considerations important to psychiatrists and the specific patients they are treating.[7,8] We asked the psychiatrists in our interviews what practical information they would like to see included in treatment guidelines. They offered a range of suggestions: better guidance about which patients would be most likely to benefit, when to offer the treatments, and how to combine these therapies with other interventions.

For the experimental PEIs (DBS and ABIs), similar questions and concerns arise. In the current research context, psychiatrists may not be aware of which patients are good candidates for referral to clinical trials. If these therapies are approved, similar questions about patient selection and place in treatment (for example, first line, second line, etc.) remain.[9]

Finally, each of our participant groups believed that patients and the public lack adequate knowledge about electroceutical interventions, and they emphasized the importance of giving potential patients sufficient information to enable them to provide valid informed consent. This is important in the case of the approved electroceutical therapies (ECT and rTMS), in part because of the potential for decision-making to be influenced unduly by misinformation and controversy – especially given that the media’s depiction of these interventions might influence patients’ willingness to receive helpful therapies such as ECT.[10]

Our interviews were used to inform the development of a national survey of these four stakeholder groups, which will provide further information about perceived barriers to accessing PEIs.

Dr. Bluhm is associate professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, East Lansing. Dr. Achtyes is director of the division of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Michigan State University, Grand Rapids. Dr. McCright is chair of the department of sociology at Michigan State University, East Lansing. Dr. Cabrera is Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Neuroethics at the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Penn State University, University Park.


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