The purpose and conduct of a psychiatric evaluation depend on who requests the evaluation, why it is requested, and the expected future role of the psychiatrist in the patient's care. The outcome of the evaluation may or may not lead to a specific psychiatric diagnosis. Three types of clinical psychiatric evaluations are discussed: 1) general psychiatric evaluation, 2) emergency evaluation, and 3) clinical consultation. In addition, general principles to guide the conduct of evaluations for administrative or legal purposes are reviewed. At times there may be a conflict between the need to establish an effective working relationship with the patient and the need to obtain comprehensive information efficiently. If the psychiatrist expects to provide care directly to the patient, the establishment of an effective working relationship with the patient may take precedence over the comprehensiveness of the initial interview or interviews (8). In such a case, emphasis may be placed on obtaining information needed for immediate clinical recommendations and decisions (9).


A. General Psychiatric Evaluation

A general psychiatric evaluation has as its central component an interview with the patient. The interview-based data are integrated with information that may be obtained through other components of the evaluation, such as a review of medical records, a physical examination, diagnostic tests, and history from collateral sources. A general evaluation usually is time intensive. The amount of time necessary generally depends on the complexity of the problem and the patient's ability and willingness to work cooperatively with the psychiatrist. Language competence needs to be assessed early in the evaluation so that the need for an interpreter can be determined. Several meetings with the patient, and in many cases appropriate family or relational network members, may be necessary. More focused evaluations of lesser scope may be appropriate when the psychiatrist is called on to address a specific, limited diagnostic or therapeutic issue.

The aims of a general psychiatric evaluation are 1) to establish whether a mental disorder or other condition requiring the attention of a psychiatrist is present; 2) to collect data sufficient to support differential diagnosis and a comprehensive clinical formulation; 3) to collaborate with the patient to develop an initial treatment plan that will foster treatment adherence, with particular consideration of any immediate interventions that may be needed to address the safety of the patient and others—or, if the evaluation is a reassessment of a patient in long-term treatment, to revise the plan of treatment in accordance with new perspectives gained from the evaluation; and 4) to identify longer-term issues (e.g., premorbid personality) that need to be considered in follow-up care.

In the course of any evaluation, it may be necessary to obtain history from other individuals (e.g., family or others with whom the patient resides; individuals referring the patient for assessment, including other clinicians). Although the default position is to maintain confidentiality unless the patient gives consent to a specific intervention or communication, the psychiatrist is justified in attenuating confidentiality to the extent needed to address the safety of the patient and others (10, 11). In addition, the psychiatrist can elicit and listen to information provided by friends or family without disclosing information about the patient to the informant.

More detailed recommendations for performing a general psychiatric evaluation are provided in Section III.


B. Emergency Evaluation

The emergency psychiatric evaluation generally occurs in response to thoughts, feelings, or urges to act that are intolerable to the patient, or to behavior that prompts urgent action by others, such as violent or self-injurious behavior, threats of harm to self or others, failure to care for oneself, bizarre or confused behavior, or intense expressions of distress. The aims and specific approaches to the emergency evaluation have been reviewed elsewhere in detail (11–15) and include the following:

  1. Assess and enhance the safety of the patient and others.

  2. Establish a provisional diagnosis (or diagnoses) of the mental disorder(s) most likely to be responsible for the current emergency, including identification of any general medical condition(s) or substance use that is causing or contributing to the patient's mental condition.

  3. Identify family or other involved persons who can give information that will help the psychiatrist determine the accuracy of reported history, particularly if the patient is cognitively impaired, agitated, or psychotic and has difficulty communicating a history of events. If the patient is to be discharged back to family members or other caretaking persons, their ability to care for the patient and their understanding of the patient's needs must be addressed.

  4. Identify any current treatment providers who can give information relevant to the evaluation.

  5. Identify social, environmental, and cultural factors relevant to immediate treatment decisions.

  6. Determine whether the patient is able and willing to form an alliance that will support further assessment and treatment, what precautions are needed if there is a substantial risk of harm to self or others, and whether involuntary treatment is necessary.

  7. Develop a specific plan for follow-up, including immediate treatment and disposition; determine whether the patient requires treatment in a hospital or other supervised setting and what follow-up will be required if the patient is not placed in a supervised setting.

The emergency evaluation varies greatly in length and may on occasion exceed several hours. Patients who will be discharged to the community after an emergency evaluation may require more extensive evaluation in the emergency setting than those who will be hospitalized. For example, patients who have presented with intoxication or who have received medications in the emergency department may require additional observation to verify their stability for discharge. In other individuals with significant symptoms but without apparent acute risk to self or others, additional time may be needed to obtain more detailed input from family, other involved caretaking persons, and treatment providers; to verify that the proposed plan of follow-up is viable; and to communicate with follow-up caregivers about interventions or recommendations resulting from the emergency assessment.

When patients are agitated, psychotic, or uncooperative with assessment, and when their clinical presentation appears to differ from the stated factors prompting assessment, it may be especially important to obtain history from other individuals (e.g., family members, other professionals, police), keeping in mind principles of confidentiality, as described in Section I.A above and in Section V.A .

Patients presenting for emergency psychiatric evaluation have a high prevalence of combined general medical and psychiatric illness, recent trauma, substance use and substance-related conditions, and cognitive impairment (16–27). These diagnostic possibilities deserve careful consideration. General medical and psychiatric evaluations should be coordinated so that additional medical evaluation can be requested or initiated by the psychiatrist on the basis of diagnostic or therapeutic considerations arising from the psychiatric history and interview. Although issues of confidentiality are sometimes raised, in an emergency situation necessary information about the patient can be communicated with the emergency medicine department staff. In many emergency settings, patients initially are examined by a nonpsychiatric physician to exclude acute general medical problems. Such examinations usually are limited in scope and rarely are definitive (18, 19, 28–30). Furthermore, psychiatrists and emergency physicians sometimes have different viewpoints on the utility of laboratory screening for substance use or medical disorders in psychiatric emergency department patients (31, 32). Therefore, on the basis of clinical judgment and the specific circumstances of the evaluation, the psychiatrist may need to request or initiate further general medical evaluation to address diagnostic concerns that emerge from the psychiatric evaluation (12, 16, 18–27, 33–35).


C. Clinical Consultation

Clinical consultations are evaluations requested by other physicians or health care professionals, patients, families, or others for the purpose of assisting in the diagnosis, treatment, or management of an individual with a suspected mental disorder or behavioral problem. These evaluations may be comprehensive or may be focused on a relatively narrow question, such as the preferred medication for treatment of a known mental disorder in a patient with a particular general medical condition. Psychiatric evaluations for consultative purposes use the same data sources as general evaluations. Consideration is given to information from the referring source on the specific problem leading to the consultation, the referring source's aims for the consultation, information that the psychiatrist may be able to obtain regarding the patient's relationship with the primary clinician, and the resources and constraints of those currently treating the patient. Also, in the case of a consultation regarding a mental or behavioral problem in a patient with a general medical illness, information about that illness, its treatment, and its prognosis is relevant. The patient should be informed that the purpose of the consultation is to advise the party who requested it. Permission to report findings to others, including family, needs to be clarified with the patient and other concerned parties before the evaluation begins.

The aim of the consultative psychiatric evaluation is to provide clear and specific answers to the questions posed by the party requesting the consultation (36, 37). For example, the psychiatrist may be asked to determine the patient's capacity to give consent for treatment decisions. On other occasions, the psychiatrist may be asked to assess a particular sign, symptom, or syndrome; provide a diagnosis; and recommend evaluation, treatment, or disposition at a level of specificity appropriate to the needs of the treating clinician.

In the course of the evaluation, the consultant may also identify a diagnostic or therapeutic issue that was not raised in the request for consultation but that is of concern to the patient or of relevance to treatment outcome. For example, treatment adherence may be affected by personality and countertransference issues that compromise the patient's therapeutic alliance with the referring clinician. If any conflicts between the patient and the primary clinician do emerge as an issue, positive resolution of them should be encouraged in a manner that respects the patient's relationship with the primary clinician.

If agreed to by the patient, discussion of findings and recommendations with the family or involved persons can assist with appropriate follow-up and adherence with recommendations.


D. Other Consultations

Other psychiatric consultations are directed toward the resolution of specific legal, administrative, or other nonclinical questions. While the details of these evaluations, such as forensic evaluations, child custody evaluations, and disability evaluations, are beyond the scope of this guideline, several general principles apply. First, the evaluee usually is not the psychiatrist's patient, and there are limits to confidentiality implicit in the aims of the evaluation; accordingly, the aims of the evaluation and the scope of disclosure should be addressed with the evaluee at the start of the interview (38, 39). Second, questions about the evaluee's legal status and legal representation should be resolved before the assessment begins, if possible. Third, many such consultations rely heavily, or even entirely, on documentary evidence or data from collateral sources. The quality and potential biases of such data should be taken into account.

The aims of these psychiatric consultations are 1) to answer the requester's question to the extent possible with the data obtainable and 2) to make a psychiatric diagnosis if it is relevant to the question.


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