What do clinicians treat: Diagnoses or symptoms? The incremental validity of a symptom-based, dimensional characterization of emotional disorders in predicting medication prescription patterns

Compr Psychiatry. 2017 Nov:79:80-88. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.04.004. Epub 2017 Apr 18.


Background: Although practice guidelines are based on disorders specified in diagnostic manuals, such as the DSM, practitioners appear to follow symptoms when making treatment decisions. Psychiatric medication is generally prescribed in a transdiagnostic manner, further highlighting how symptoms, not diagnoses, often guide clinical practice. A quantitative approach to nosology promises to provide better guidance as it describes psychopathology dimensionally and its organization reflects patterns of covariation among symptoms.

Aim: To investigate whether a quantitative classification of emotional disorders can account for naturalistic medication prescription patterns better than traditional diagnoses.

Methods: Symptom dimensions and DSM diagnoses of emotional disorders, as well as prescribed medications, were assessed using interviews in a psychiatric outpatient sample (N=318, mean age 42.5years old, 59% female, 81% Caucasian).

Results: Each diagnosis was associated with prescription of multiple medication classes, and most medications were associated with multiple disorders. This was largely due to heterogeneity of clinical diagnoses, with narrow, homogenous dimensions underpinning diagnoses showing different medication profiles. Symptom dimensions predicted medication prescription better than DSM diagnoses, irrespective of whether this was examined broadly across all conditions, or focused on a specific disorder and medication indicated for it.

Conclusions: Psychiatric medication was prescribed in line with symptoms rather than DSM diagnoses. A quantitative approach to nosology may better reflect treatment planning and be a more effective guide to pharmacotherapy than traditional diagnoses. This adds to a diverse body of evidence about superiority of the quantitative system in practical applications and highlights its potential to improve psychiatric care.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Drug Prescriptions / standards*
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mood Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Mood Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Outpatients / psychology
  • Physician's Role*
  • Psychopathology
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Young Adult