Behavioral Healthcare/ December 4, 2013
By Alison Knopf
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) may be the best way to help patients with treatment-resistant major depression (TRMD) – people who have tried antidepressants at least once for the appropriate amount of time on the appropriate dose, according to Pete Mumma, Administrative Director of the Behavioral Health Service Line in the Department of Psychiatry at Lancaster General Health in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to “sell” the TMS device to financial people in your institution.
Here’s how Mumma did it: 9.1 percent of the population has depression, and .05 percent has TRMD. These people are “superutilizers,” who consume 18 percent of a health system’s uncompensated or undercompensated spending. “It’s unsustainable,” he said. “We expect people who have extreme needs to be treated in pathway models that don’t meet their needs – what will we do with these patients, not just from a mental health perspective, but from a total medical perspective?”
For example, an individual with TRMD who also has cardiac disease or cancer is going to be very complicated to treat. “Any medical provider who is helping patients with TRMD is going to bump up against some or all of their issues,” said Mumma. Symptoms such as lack of energy, lack of concentration, and sleep problems create further distractions for the patient, he said. The recommendations of the cardiologist or oncologist won’t go as far as they would if the patient didn’t have depression.
The impact of mental health problems on physical treatment is more relevant now than it was in the past because of the way health systems are being reimbursed, said Mumma, citing in particular the penalty for readmissions within 30 days. If a patient fails cardiac treatment – perhaps because he didn’t exercise, something that is notably difficult for people with depression – and needs to be readmitted, that’s a ding to the hospital’s bottom line. “So cardiologists and every other doctor wants to make sure they eliminate barriers to good outcomes,” he said. Mental problems that make it difficult to follow through with physician recommendations are suddenly seen as very important – a good thing for both patients and the health care system.
“We can spend a little money up front to treat the depression, and the patient’s cardiac care goes farther, faster,” said Mumma.
Typically, patients start with a daily course of treatment, which takes about 37 minutes. This would go on for four to six weeks. The treatment is painless and requires no sedation. Once the initial course is done, some patients may come back for a maintenance treatment. The TMS doctor will determine the exact treatment protocol and any maintenance needed.
The first line of treatment for depression is medication, but people with TRMD are patients for whom medication isn’t working. On the system side, the clinical benefit is important, but on the patient side, it’s crucial. “The tragic thing is these patients aren’t getting better,” said Mumma of TRMD.
Doing depression care differently – what Mumma is suggesting is avoiding the “shotgun approach” that most depression patients who have tried one medication after another have experienced. At Lancaster, before selecting a medication, the psychiatry department does “pharmacogenetic” testing via a cheek swab to at least narrow down the type of medication to try in the first place. “But many patients get agent after agent, and have had no other options over their lifetime.” Now, at least patients who have failed one course of medication with an appropriate dose and duration have another option.
“Through medications, we’re trying to light up some parts of the brain and quiet others,” said Mumma. That’s the same thing that TMS does – the magnet near the head “reaches deep into the amygdala, which scientists think is responsible for mood,” he said. “Instead of washing the brain with chemicals, this seems to isolate the problem.” Many patients continue to take medications while getting TMS but find they can reduce their medications over time, he added.
Another issue is the cost of medications. Abilify, the medication used for treatment-resistant major depression, is very expensive, said Mumma. “The health plan might be paying more than $1,000 per month” for Abilify, he said. “Add to that the costs of Celexa or other medications, plus the medication management.”
Tracking medical costs
Mumma also has scrutinized the literature, finding that one study showed that the most costly expense to employers was depression, at a cost of more than $350,000 per thousand employees. That isn’t only medical costs, of course, but aggregated costs of medical treatment, pharmacy, absenteeism, and “presenteeism” – in which employees are still at work but unable to function. “If we were to do depression care differently, that’s a huge savings,” said Mumma.
In clinical trials, suicidality was four times higher in the placebo group than the TMS group, said Mumma. (In the clinical trials, TMS was compared to sham TMS, not compared to medication.)
Major depression is a devastating disease for people who don’t get better, and 40 percent of the patients experience remission, said Mumma, who is not compensated by Neuronetics.
The big question is whether TMS is going to be as effective as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), said Mumma. Clearly TMS is much more appealing to patients. “ECT is scary as hell, and it has ugly side effects like memory loss,” he said. ECT is effective, but many studies are showing comparable results for people with TMS, said Mumma.
“Nobody’s using the word, ‘cure,’” said Mumma. But TMS is different from medications, he said. TMS is non-medication based treatment, so there are no drug-drug interactions. “It’s difficult to get off of antidepressants once you get on, and antidepressants are basically a band-aid for a problem – just symptom improvement, not managing the illness.” TMS does allow patients to return to functionality with fewer side effects than medication, said Mumma.