1. Patient interview

The psychiatrist's primary assessment tool is the direct face-to-face interview of the patient. Evaluations based solely on review of records and interviews of persons close to the patient are inherently limited by a lack of the patient's perspective. Furthermore, the clinical interview provides the psychiatrist with a sample of the patient's interpersonal behavior and emotional processes. It can either support or qualify diagnostic inferences from the history and can also aid in prognosis and treatment planning. Important information can be derived by observing the patient's general style of relating, the ways in which the patient minimizes or exaggerates certain aspects of his or her history, and whether particular questions appear to evoke hesitation or signs of discomfort. Additional observations concern the patient's ability to communicate about emotional issues, the defense mechanisms the patient uses when discussing emotionally important topics, and the patient's responses to the psychiatrist's comments and to other behavior, such as the psychiatrist's handling of interruptions or time limits.

The interview should be done in a manner that facilitates the patient's telling of his or her story, while simultaneously obtaining the necessary information. Time constraints need to be considered and adequate time allowed for the interview. High-priority tasks include an assessment of the patient's safety and the identification of signs, symptoms, or disorders requiring urgent treatment.

Opening with a discussion of the purpose of the interview offers the patient an understanding of the process. Empirical studies of the interview process suggest that the most comprehensive and accurate information emerges from a combination of 1) open-ended questioning with empathic listening and 2) structured inquiry about specific events and symptoms (87–92). When the purpose is a general evaluation, beginning with open-ended, empathic inquiry about the patient's concerns usually is best. Attention to the patient's most pressing concerns, whenever possible, will improve the therapeutic alliance and is likely to facilitate increased patient cooperation; other inquiries may be more limited initially in the service of the alliance. Patient satisfaction with open-ended inquiry is greatest when the psychiatrist provides feedback to the patient at multiple points during the interview. Structured, systematic questioning has been shown to be especially helpful in eliciting information about substance use and traumatic life events and in ascertaining the presence or absence of specific symptoms and signs of particular mental disorders (93–102) (Section IV.A.3).

Throughout the interview, useful clinical information is obtained by being sensitive to issues of development, culture, race, ethnicity, primary language, health literacy, disabilities, gender, sexual orientation, familial/genetic patterns, religious and spiritual beliefs, social class, and physical and social environment influencing the patient's symptoms and behavior. Respectful evaluation involves an empathic, nonjudgmental attitude and appropriate responses concerning the patient's cultural identity, his or her own explanation of illness and treatment pathways, sociocultural stressors and supports, and modes of interpersonal communication, both verbal and nonverbal. An awareness of one's possible biases or prejudices about patients from different subcultures and an understanding of the limitations of one's knowledge and skills in working with such patients may help one determine when it is advisable to consult with a clinician who has expertise concerning a particular subculture (103–105).

a) Use of interpreters in the interview

When available, professionally trained interpreters with mental health experience should be used for encounters involving patients with limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or have severely limited hearing and who prefer to communicate using sign language (106, 107). Bilingual and bicultural staff may also be helpful (108). With cooperative patients, over-the-phone language interpretation services can be used when other professionally trained interpreters are unavailable, although establishing rapport with the patient may be more difficult. Family members, community members, or friends should not be used unless the patient refuses to use the professional interpreter or under emergency circumstances, in which case this should be noted in the patient record. The interpreter should be instructed to translate the patient's own words and to avoid paraphrasing except as needed to translate the correct meaning of idioms and other culture-specific expressions (109–111).

b) Interviews with agitated or aggressive individuals

When evaluating individuals who are agitated or aggressive, the psychiatrist needs to give consideration to the patient interview as well as to his or her own safety (13, 77, 112–116). Establishing the presence of backup personnel and choosing an appropriate space in which to conduct the interview are useful preparations before meeting with an agitated or aggressive patient. Because such individuals may become more agitated if they feel trapped within a small room or are too closely positioned to the interviewer, a distance of several arms' length from the patient, with both psychiatrist and patient having access to the door, is generally optimal. A safe office environment should not contain potentially dangerous objects (e.g., decorative items), and the clinician should avoid clothing that can be used against him or her (e.g., neckties, scarves, prominent dangling earrings). Depending on the configuration of the office or interview room and its proximity to other staff, a mechanism for summoning assistance (e.g., a panic button) may also be indicated.

During the interview, a nonconfrontational and straightforward approach is often most effective. Attending to the patient's comfort, using reflective or active listening techniques, and showing respect for the patient's feelings and stated concerns may aid in establishing rapport. The key to calming an aggressive patient is affect management. Patients who are affectively aroused will need to ventilate their feelings, and the clinician should allow the patient to tell his or her own story. Logical or rational responses to an affectively flooded individual may further inflame the patient. Affect management involves acknowledging the patient's affect, validating the affect when appropriate, and encouraging the patient to talk about his or her feelings (116).

In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to set limits (e.g., noting that aggressive behavior cannot be permitted) while simultaneously emphasizing the need to attend to the safety of the patient and others. Throughout the interview, the clinician needs to be alert for signs that the patient's agitation is escalating (e.g., increased body movements or pacing, clenched fists, verbal threats, or increasing verbal volume); such signs may indicate a need to adjust the interview style or timing. At times, it will be best to postpone in-depth history taking or discussion of distressing topics that are not germane to the patient's current presentation.

In some instances, administration of psychotropic medications or judicious use of seclusion or restraint may be necessary to enhance the safety of the patient and others (114) or to permit essential physical examination, laboratory studies, or other diagnostic assessment. Reliance on such measures should be justified by the urgency of obtaining the diagnostic information and should be in compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The psychiatrist should consider how any special circumstances of the interview or examination may influence clinical findings. When the patient is able to cooperate, parts of the examination that cannot be completed or that are significantly influenced by the use of medication, seclusion, or restraint should be repeated if possible.

Guidelines for reducing the use of seclusion and restraint while at the same time maintaining the safety of patients and staff are available in a report developed by the APA with the American Psychiatric Nurses Association and the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems (117). Recommendations of the report include assessing for anger management problems, identifying risk factors (e.g., pregnancy, asthma, head or spinal injury) before using restraint, identifying triggers, involving patients in treatment planning, asking patients about past experiences of seclusion and restraint, involving family, and documenting interventions attempted before using seclusion or restraint.


2. Use of collateral sources

Family members, other important people in the patient's life, and records of prior medical and psychiatric treatment are frequently useful sources of information. Collateral information is particularly important when patients have impaired insight, including when patients have substance use disorders or cognitive impairment, and is essential for treatment planning when patients require a high level of assistance or supervision because of impaired function or unstable behavior. Family members and others who know the patient well may provide important information about the patient's personality before the onset of illness, since the patient's own account may be unduly influenced by his or her mental state. Collateral sources of information may also provide essential information about the illness course (Section III.C), the current symptoms and behavior (Section III.B), and the reasons for the evaluation (Section III.A). The extent of the collateral interviews and the extent of prior record review should be commensurate with the purpose of the evaluation, the complexity of the clinical presentation, and the diagnostic and therapeutic goals. For example, in an acute inpatient or emergency setting, collateral information may be crucial to developing an understanding of the patient's clinical condition, whereas in long-term outpatient psychotherapy the impact on the treatment process of obtaining collateral information from family or others needs to be considered. Except when immediate safety concerns are paramount, the confidentiality of the patient should be respected. At the same time, it is permissible for the psychiatrist to listen to information provided by family members and other important people in the patient's life, as long as confidential information is not provided to the informant (Sections I.A, I.B, II.C, and V.A).


3. Use of structured interviews and rating scales, including functional assessments

Structured interviews, standardized data forms, questionnaires, and rating scales can be useful tools for diagnostic assessment and evaluation of treatment outcome. Table 3, while not all-inclusive, lists many of the common structured instruments in use (see also the CD-ROM from APA's Handbook of Psychiatric Measures [118]). Such structured instruments may be used as components for establishing a diagnosis, measuring social or occupational function, or monitoring changes in symptom severity or side effects over time during treatment.

Table Reference Number
Table 3. Examples of Clinical Rating Scales 

Although most commonly used in psychiatric research, rating scales may also help psychiatrists structure a thorough line of questioning. In addition, self-report scales may be valuable in opening communication with patients about their symptoms, feelings, or experiences. At the same time, these tools vary considerably as to their reliability and validity. Potential cultural, ethnic, gender, social, and age biases are relevant to the selection of standardized interviews and rating scales and the interpretation of their results (119–125). Furthermore, clinical impressions of treatment response should consider the relative importance of specific symptoms to the patient's function and well-being and the relative impact of specific symptoms on the patient's social environment. Consequently, rating scales should never be used alone to establish a diagnosis or clinical treatment plan; they can augment but not supplant the clinician's evaluation, narrative, and clinical judgment (11, 126–129).

For persons with chronic diseases, and particularly those with multiple comorbid conditions, structured assessment of physical and instrumental function may be useful in assessing strengths and disease severity (130). Functional assessments include assessment of physical activities of daily living (e.g., eating, using the toilet, transferring, bathing, and dressing) and instrumental activities of daily living (e.g., driving or using public transportation, taking medication as prescribed, shopping, managing one's own money, keeping house, communicating by mail or telephone, and caring for a child or other dependent) (131, 132). Impairments in these activities can be due to physical or cognitive impairment or to the disruption of purposeful activity by the symptoms of mental illness.

Formal assessment of physical and instrumental activities of daily living may be appropriate for patients who are disabled by old age or by chronic mental illness or general medical conditions. Such assessments facilitate the delineation of the combined effects of multiple illnesses and chronic conditions on patient's lives, and such assessments provide a severity measure that is congruent with patients' and families' experience of disability. In addition, functional assessment facilitates the monitoring of treatment by assessing important beneficial and adverse effects of treatment.


4. Use of diagnostic tests, including psychological and neuropsychological tests

Laboratory tests are included in a psychiatric evaluation when they are necessary to establish or exclude a diagnosis, to aid in the choice of treatment, or to monitor treatment effects or side effects (16, 133–144). When laboratory tests are obtained, relevant test results are documented in the evaluation, with their importance for diagnosis and treatment indicated in the clinical formulation or treatment plan.

Diagnostic tests used during a psychiatric evaluation include those that do the following:

  1. Detect or rule out the presence of a disorder or condition that has treatment consequences. Examples include urine screens for substance use disorders, neuropsychological tests to ascertain the presence of a learning disability, and brain imaging tests to ascertain the presence of a structural neurological abnormality.

  2. Determine the relative safety and appropriate dose of potential alternative treatments. For example, tests of hematological, thyroid, renal, and cardiac function in a patient with bipolar disorder may be needed to help the clinician choose among available mood-stabilizing medications (145), or evaluation of cardiac or pulmonary function may be important in determining a patient's medical status prior to electroconvulsive therapy (146).

  3. Provide baseline measurements before instituting treatment, with subsequent measurements used to assess for effects of treatment. For example, baseline and follow-up electrocardiograms may be required to identify effects of antipsychotic or tricyclic antidepressant medications on cardiac conduction, whereas baseline and follow-up glucose levels and lipid panels may be required to identify effects of second-generation antipsychotic agents.

  4. Monitor blood levels of medications when indicated (e.g., for effectiveness, toxicity, or adherence).

Under each of these circumstances, the potential utility of a test will be determined by multiple interrelated factors, including the following:

  1. The likelihood that an individual from a population of similar patients (e.g., of similar age, gender, treatment setting) would have the condition. This probability is also referred to as the prevalence of the condition in that population. In general, conditions that are more prevalent in the population are more likely to be correctly identified by use of a diagnostic test. In the context of obtaining baseline measurements, the likely prevalence of the condition at a later date may also be relevant.

  2. The probabilities that the test will correctly detect a condition that is present (true positive), incorrectly identify a condition as present when it is not (false positive), correctly identify a condition as absent (true negative), or incorrectly identify a condition as absent when it is actually present (false negative). Although information about these probabilities is available for many tests, the key point to consider in clinical practice is that false negative and false positive test results do occur. Furthermore, incorrect identification of a condition can result in unnecessary and potentially detrimental evaluations and interventions; incorrectly viewing a condition as absent can lead to other crucial signs and symptoms of the condition being ignored.

  3. The treatment implications of the test results. Obviously, a test will be of benefit if it correctly detects a previously unidentified and treatable condition. However, the treatment implications may be nil if the test correctly detects a condition that is already known to be present on the basis of clinical examination or history or if it correctly detects a benign or incidental condition that leads to further unnecessary testing with no beneficial effect on treatment.

Given the wide range of clinical situations evaluated by psychiatrists, there are no specific guidelines about which tests should be "routinely" done. It is important to have a clear rationale for the ordering of tests (12, 23, 26), and each patient should be considered individually. Nevertheless, some general principles may aid in deciding on particular diagnostic assessments. For example, tests may be ordered on the basis of the setting (e.g., some patients seen in emergency departments may be at increased risk for certain conditions that warrant diagnostic tests), the clinical presentation (e.g., certain tests are warranted for patients with new onset of delirium), or the potential treatments (e.g., patients may need certain tests before initiation of lithium therapy). For tests that require the patient's participation, factors such as language, education level, intelligence, culture, and level of alertness can affect the testing process and may influence the choice of diagnostic approaches. Patient preferences are also important to consider. Furthermore, the potential benefits of identifying and treating a particular condition need to be weighed against the costs (e.g., time, money, physical pain, emotional stress) of indiscriminate testing.

More detail on the use of laboratory testing to aid in diagnosis and to guide treatment is provided in APA practice guidelines for specific disorders. Table 4 provides examples of and general indications for tests that may be indicated depending on the status of the patient.

Table Reference Number
Table 4. Tests That May Be Indicated as Part of a Psychiatric Evaluation

Neuropsychological testing has a broad range of application, but the decision to order neuropsychological testing for an individual patient remains a matter of clinical judgment (147). Neuropsychological testing may be requested when cognitive deficits are suspected or there is a need to grade for severity or progression of deficits over time. In addition, neuropsychological testing can be helpful in distinguishing between cognitive disorders and malingering or factitious disorders. When patients present later in life with the new onset of psychosis or mood disorder accompanied by cognitive deficits, neuropsychological testing may also be helpful in distinguishing dementia from other psychiatric syndromes. In research studies, typical patterns of cognitive deficits have been identified in a variety of psychiatric disorders, including Alzheimer's disease (148), schizophrenia (149–151), bipolar disorder (152–156), major depressive disorder (157–160), and autism (161, 162). Findings have highlighted the fact that cognitive deficits and associated impairment of social and occupational functioning may persist despite successful treatment of other core symptoms of an illness. For example, executive dysfunction may persist in otherwise responsive depression (163), and working memory may remain impaired in schizophrenia independent of response of positive and negative symptoms (149, 164). Thus, for some patients, a better understanding of persistent neuropsychological impairments can aid in treatment and vocational planning.


5. Physical examination

An understanding of the patient's general medical condition is important in order to 1) properly assess the patient's psychiatric symptoms and their potential cause, 2) determine the patient's need for general medical care, and 3) choose among psychiatric treatments that can be affected by the patient's general medical status (16, 22, 25, 26, 34, 144, 165, 166). The psychiatrist also ensures that a recent medical workup with appropriate laboratory tests and monitoring is performed. The psychiatrist should be informed about the results of the medical workup and incorporate this information into the evaluation. The psychiatrist's close involvement in the patient's general medical evaluation and ongoing care can also improve the patient's care by promoting cooperation, facilitating follow-up, and permitting prompt reexamination of symptomatic areas when symptoms change.

The physical examination may be performed by the psychiatrist, another physician, or a medically trained clinician. Considerations influencing the decision of whether the psychiatrist will personally perform the physical examination include potential effects on the psychiatrist-patient relationship, the purposes of the evaluation, and the complexity of the medical condition of the patient. The timing, scope, and intensity will vary according to clinical circumstances. For example, the physical examination of an otherwise healthy patient with paranoia, or the genital-rectal examination of a patient with a history of sexual abuse, may be deferred to a more appropriate time and setting.

In most circumstances, the physical examination should be chaperoned. Particular caution is warranted in the physical examination of persons with histories of physical or sexual abuse or with other features that could increase the possibility of the patient's being distressed as a result of the examination (e.g., a patient with an erotic or paranoid transference to the psychiatrist). All but limited examinations of such patients should be chaperoned.


6. Work with multidisciplinary teams

In many settings, it has become commonplace for the care of psychiatric patients to draw on the expertise of multidisciplinary teams. In the evaluation phase of care, other members of the clinical team (e.g., nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, social workers, case managers, peer counselors, chaplains) may gather data or perform discipline-specific assessments. The psychiatrist responsible for the patient's care reviews and integrates these assessments into the psychiatric evaluation of the patient and works with other members of the multidisciplinary team in developing and implementing a plan of care.

The opportunity to improve systematic observations of patients' behavior by staff is an advantage of controlled settings such as hospitals, partial hospital settings, residential treatment facilities, and other institutions. Several types of observations may be gathered, according to the patient's specific situation:

  1. General observations. These are relevant to all patients in all settings and include notes on patients' behavior, statements and expressed concerns, cooperativeness with or resistance to staff, sleep/wake patterns, and self-care.

  2. Diagnosis-specific observations. These are observations relevant to confirming a diagnosis or assessing the severity, complications, or subtype of a disorder. Examples include recording signs of withdrawal in an alcohol-dependent patient and observations during meals for patients with eating disorders.

  3. Patient-specific observations. These are observations aimed at assessing a clinical hypothesis. An example is observation of behavior following a family meeting for a patient in whom family conflicts are suspected of having contributed to a psychotic relapse.

  4. Observations of response to treatment interventions. Examples include systematic recording of a target behavior in a trial of behavior therapy, observations of the effects of newly prescribed medications, and nurse-completed rating scales to measure changes after behavioral or psychotherapeutic interventions.

Table Reference Number
Table 3. Examples of Clinical Rating Scales 
Table Reference Number
Table 4. Tests That May Be Indicated as Part of a Psychiatric Evaluation


Citing articles are presented as examples only. In non-demo SCM6 implementation, integration with CrossRef’s "Cited By" API will populate this tab (http://www.crossref.org/citedby.html).
Related Content
Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 7th Edition > Chapter 1.  >
Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 7th Edition > Chapter 2.  >
Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 7th Edition > Chapter 4.  >
Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 7th Edition > Chapter 11.  >
The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 5th Edition > Chapter 1.  >
Psychiatric News
Read more at Psychiatric News >>
  • Print
  • PDF
  • E-mail
  • Chapter Alerts
  • Get Citation