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Introduction: Methods, Commentary, and Summary

J Clin Psychiatry 2003;64(suppl 12):5-20

Objectives. A growing number of atypical antipsychotics are available for clinicians to choose from in the treatment of psychotic disorders. However, a number of important questions concerning medication selection, dosing and dose equivalence, and the management of inadequate response, compliance problems, and relapse have not been adequately addressed by clinical trials. To aid clinical decision-making, a consensus survey of expert opinion on the pharmacologic treatment of psychotic disorders was undertaken to address questions not definitively answered in the research literature. 

Method. Based on a literature review, a written survey was developed with 60 questions and 994 options. Approximately half of the options were scored using a modified version of the RAND 9-point scale for rating the appropriateness of medical decisions. For the other options, the experts were asked to write in answers (e.g., average doses) or check a box to indicate their preferred answer. The survey was sent to 50 national experts on the pharmacologic treatment of psychotic disorders, 47 (94%) of whom completed it. In analyzing the responses to items rated on the 9-point scale, consensus on each option was defined as a nonrandom distribution of scores by chi-square "goodness-of-fit" test. We assigned a categorical rank (first line/preferred choice, second line/alternate choice, third line/usually inappropriate) to each option based on the 95% confidence interval around the mean rating. Guideline tables indicating preferred treatment strategies were then developed for key clinical situations. 

Results. The expert panel reached consensus on 88% of the options rated on the 9-point scale. The experts overwhelmingly endorsed the atypical antipsychotics for the treatment of psychotic disorders. Risperidone was the top choice for first-episode and multi-episode patients, with the other newer atypicals rated first line or high second line depending on the clinical situation. Clozapine and a long-acting injectable atypical (when available) were other high second line options for multi-episode patients. The experts’ dosing recommendations agreed closely with the package inserts for the drugs, and their estimates of dose equivalence among the antipsychotics followed a linear pattern.

The experts considered 3–6 weeks an adequate antipsychotic trial, but would wait a little longer (4–10 weeks) before making a major change in treatment regimen if there is a partial response. The experts recommended trying to improve response by increasing the dose of atypical and depot antipsychotics before switching to a different agent; there was less agreement about increasing the dose of conventional antipsychotics before switching, probably because of concern about side effects at higher doses. If it is decided to switch because of inadequate response, risperidone was the experts’ first choice to switch to, no matter what drug was initially tried. Although there was some disparity in the experts’ recommendations concerning how many agents to try before switching to clozapine, the experts’ responses suggest that switching to clozapine should be considered after failure to respond to two atypical antipsychotics. Clozapine was also the antipsychotic of choice for patients with suicidal behavior. When switching oral antipsychotics, the experts considered cross-titration the preferred strategy. When switching to an injectable antipsychotic, the experts stressed the importance of continuing the oral antipsychotic until therapeutic levels of the injectable agent are achieved. 

The experts considered psychosocial interventions the first choice strategy for partially compliant patients, with pharmacologic interventions the first choice for patients with clear evidence of noncompliance. However, because it can be difficult to distinguish partially compliant from noncompliant patients, the editors recommended combining psychosocial and pharmacologic interventions to improve compliance whenever possible. When patients relapse because of compliance problems or if there is any doubt about compliance, the experts recommended the use of a long-acting injectable antipsychotic and would select an injectable atypical when this option becomes available. The experts would also consider using an injectable atypical antipsychotic (when available) in many clinical situations that do not involve compliance problems. 

The experts stressed the importance of monitoring for health problems—especially obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, HIV risk behaviors, medical complications of substance abuse, heavy smoking and its effects, hypertension, and amenorrhea—in patients being treated with antipsychotics. 

Although many patients are prescribed adjunctive treatments, multiple antipsychotics, and combinations of different classes of drugs (e.g., antipsychotics plus mood stabilizers or antidepressants) in an effort to enhance response, the experts gave little support to any of these strategies, with the exception of antidepressants for patients with dysphoria/depression, antidepressants or ECT for patients with suicidal behavior, and mood stabilizers for patients with aggression/violence.

When asked about indicators of remission and recovery, the experts considered acute improvement in psychotic symptoms the most important indicator of remission, whereas they considered more sustained improvement in multiple outcome domains (e.g., occupational/educational functioning, peer relationships, independent living) important in assessing recovery. 

Conclusions. The experts reached a high level of consensus on many of the key treatment questions in the survey. Within the limits of expert opinion and with the expectation that future research data will take precedence, these guidelines provide direction for addressing common clinical dilemmas that arise in the pharmacologic treatment of psychotic disorders. They can be used to inform clinicians and educate patients regarding the relative merits of a variety of interventions. Clinicians should keep in mind that no guidelines can address the complexities involved in the care of each individual patient and that sound clinical judgment based on clinical experience should be used in applying these recommendations.