case formulation

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! part 2


Last week I described some of the reasons for using a case formulation approach when working through initial assessment information, and today I’m going to describe one approach for organising a formulation. This is the “4 P” formulation, and it’s one that’s often used in mental health (Bolton, 2014).

In the 4 P model, there are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Preconditions – Why is this person vulnerable to this problem?
  2. Precipitating factors – Why now? This can mean “why is this person having symptoms now?” or “why is this person presenting to this person for treatment right now?”
  3. Perpetuating factors – Why is this person still ill?
  4. Protective factors – Why is this person not more ill?

Remembering that people are whole people, and that pain is always multifactorial, this formulation approach incorporates diagnostic information (disease) alongside a person’s response to disease (illness). The two facets of “being unwell” go together – but not synchronously. We can have a disease and be oblivious to it (think of many forms of cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis…and even Covid-19). Once we begin to experience symptoms and decide that this is not “normal” we call it illness. And if symptoms and signs begin to impinge on what we can and can’t do in life, we can call this disability or functional limitations. These in turn (more or less) influence participation in community life. The relationships are not straightforward, and this is partly why a formulation can be so helpful. Formulations help us explore – in collaboration with the person – why is this problem such a problem? – whether it’s simply the presence of pain, or more related to the disability and distress that pain is posing for the person.

Preconditions include biological factors such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Preconditions also include psychological factors such as previous experiences in life, prevailing beliefs, emotional reactivity, and attention. Social factors such as employment status, social connection, stigma, socio-economic status, family and living situation are all contributors to a person’s vulnerability to the problem they’re presenting with. In our pain formulations, we know about many of these preconditions that make the people we see vulnerable to having trouble with their pain.

Precipitating factors can be considered in several ways. I like to consider behavioural antecedents for seeking help – what’s been happening in the immediate weeks before a person seeks help – as well as antecedents to the onset of symptoms. For example, people might wait for some weeks before seeking help for a back pain because “it usually settles down” – and this suggests to me that their current episode hasn’t settled down, and they have some thoughts or worries about why. Others might be seeking help because of insurance or workplace requirements where, if they don’t seek help and have the problem recorded, they may not get cover for treatment if the problem reoccurs. Some might be seeking help because their partner or family member is worried, or because they read something in the media or online. I also ask about what was happening at the time the symptoms started. Sometimes this is about an unusually busy time (at work or home), a change in activity level, a new tool or piece of equipment, a new manager or coworkers, perhaps a new daily routine, or a change in living circumstances. While these factors may not be directly causal (biologically) the meaning of these events is valuable because they inform me of the person’s beliefs about their problem.

Perpetuating factors are again, multifactorial and often unrelated to the factors that precipitated the problem. There could be factors associated with disuse influencing changes to the tissues and neurobiology; there could be steps the person has taken to deal with the problem that impact on how quickly it resolves such as using NSAIDs or strapping/wrapping, wearing splints, changed movement patterns. Some of the factors are likely to be beliefs about what’s going on and what should be done about it – like “all the pain must be gone before I start back at work”, or “it’s damaged so I need surgery”. Others could be instructions from people (or held in the community at large) about what to do, like resting, moving in particular ways, or when to seek treatment. Some can be how others respond to the person, like getting irritated because the person isn’t 100% “yet”, or mollycoddling the person (wrapping them up in cottonwool and not letting them do things again). Workplace factors like policies not allowing a person back “until fully fit” or “there are no light duties” also contribute to trouble resuming normal activities.

Protective factors help explain resilience, or strengths the person has that help them maintain well being in the face of this problem. They can be attitudes and practices of the person like believing the body is good at recovering, or maintaining healthy eating and sleeping. They may be factors such as the person’s age, gender, general health. They can include the ability to get to and from treatment (and pay for it), the person’s social supports, their relationships with other health professionals, perhaps strategies they’ve used for other problems (including similar ones to this event) that they haven’t thought to use for this one.

The 4P approach has multiple variants. Some include “the Problem” and call it a 5P model. Some are explicitly tied to a theory of human behaviour (such as a CBT model, ACT model or applied behaviour analysis). Some are entirely developed from the person’s own words and experiences, while others draw on reports from other team members, or previous interactions. The over-riding themes of all of these are that a formulation is developed in collaboration with the person, and considers the whole person in their own usual context.

Next time I’ll look at another formulation approach, and discuss it in relation to teams and how they might use it to form a “team model” of pain and musculoskeletal problems.

Bolton, J. W. (2014). Case formulation after Engel—The 4P model: A philosophical case conference. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 21(3), 179-189.

Cox, L. A. (2021). Use of individual formulation in mental health practice. Mental Health Practice, 24(1), 33-41. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/mhp.2020.e1515

Farmer, R. F., & Chapman, A. L. (2016). Behavioral case formulation and treatment planning. In Behavioral interventions in cognitive behavior therapy: Practical guidance for putting theory into action (2nd ed.). (pp. 53-100). https://doi.org/10.1037/14691-003

Gilbert, P. (2016). A biopsychosocial and evolutionary approach to formulation. In Tarrier, Nicholas [Ed]; Johnson, Judith Ed Case formulation in cognitive behaviour therapy: The treatment of challenging and complex cases , 2nd ed (pp 52-89) xvii, 384 pp New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group; US (pp. 52-89).

Making first contact: what to do with all that information! part 1


Last post I wrote I said I’d continue with a process for structuring and synthesising the information we gather from the initial contact we make with the person. This process is integral to clinical reasoning, and somewhat surprisingly, there’s not a great deal of research to give us guidance on the best way to do this – and it’s even more challenging for those of us working in an interprofessional team setting, where different professions, personalities and assumptions are part of it.

If we work backwards from the end point, we might get some clues about what to do. Our end point is to help this person do what matters in their life. All our efforts are pitched towards this end. Because people are unique, what matters to them in their context is likely to be unique, and because pain and disability are multifactorial, there will be many paths to help that person get to where they want to be. Algorithms are designed to make the task of clinical reasoning a lot simpler, but there are some enormous assumptions associated with using an algorithmic approach: that we know the important factors associated with change; that we can address those factors successfully; that each person has the same set of factors evident in their presentation… and frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen strong evidence of any of these when it comes to pain.

Clinical reasoning is about a series of cause and effect assumptions. We have limited certainty about much of pain and the relationships between factors we think influence pain and disability. We’ve also been holding on to some outdated and inaccurate assumptions about the way grouped data applies to the one person in front of us. Prof Steven Hayes points out that as early as the 1940’s (perhaps earlier) we knew that there was no such thing as “the average man” (or woman!). This emerged in human factors/ergonomic design, where using the average/median of all the anthropomorphic measures we have does not help us design a workstation or control panel that will work for all people. Instead, we have to design to suit the minimum and maximum clearances and reach, and add adjustability so that everyone can make their workstation work for them. The assumptions used in early application of anthropometrics were that everyone is essentially similar: it’s ergodic theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodic_theory). Ergodic theory holds two assumptions that don’t work well for people: all the events in ergodic theory must be stationary, and all elements in the mathematical model must obey they same rules.

When we work with people, we know their presentation is a series of responses that continue to move over time. Their presentation is dynamic, changing all the time but exhibiting similarities in terms of processes. And we also know that different factors influencing a person’s presentation don’t always follow the same patterns. There are things like legislation, unexpected events like trauma or earthquakes, biases and stigma – and these don’t affect everyone equally.

One solution is to acknowledge this and instead look to the particular, applying to this person at this time – idiographic, or as Hayes calls it “idionomic.” A network diagram, showing the dynamic hypothesised relationships between contributing factors can help us generate ways to influence change. And the diagram should “make sense”, or explain, what’s going on to all the team members including the person with pain.

I’ve used a cognitive behavioural formulation model for many years now (see here and here – and use the search bar for “case formulation” for a list of the posts I’ve made over the years). The assumptions in this approach are that directly influencing the thoughts a person has about their pain will have flow-on effects on pain, emotions, actions and physiological arousal. And to a certain extent this is true – plus, there are some things we cannot readily change, such as family responses or previous trauma. But the flexibility of a formulation approach is that we can include anything that’s relevant including strategies the person has used in response to those things that can’t be changed.

The biggest assumption that I make is that pain on its own isn’t the main problem. It’s how we respond to pain, what we think is going on, how we react to the things we do in response to pain (or things we don’t do but think we should), and how the people around us influence us, that help determine how much pain bothers us. There is plenty of research showing that people willingly do painful things if they do so for important reasons. Some everyday examples include ritual tattoos, endurance sports, boxing and martial arts, eating very spicy chilli. Of course, these aren’t examples of persistent pain – and yet, people with persistent pain started with acute pain. There are some highly influential factors that are present from the outset and these do have an impact on how we respond to pain, especially as time goes on.

The second assumption I make is that everyone is able to learn how to do things differently, and in doing these, we can develop a different relationship with pain and become less distressed and disabled by our experience. This doesn’t mean (a) that we should just give up and be resigned to a life of pain and not seek treatment to reduce pain; or (b) that we should just ignore pain and grit teeth and bear it. It also doesn’t mean that we will feel happy about pain, or that life goes on as normal. But it does mean that we can make some room for pain to be present, and move towards doing what matters rather than having pain become some invisible barrier to a life worth living.

Exactly what we include, and how the relationships between each factor play out is the topic for next weeks’ blog – stay in touch!

Case formulation: A simplified example continues


My final post on case formulation illustrates the slightly simplified case study that I presented here.
I will be simplifying his presentation again today, to make sure this post isn’t too enormous!

Firstly, we identify the relatively stable phenomena:

  • Pain-related anxiety and avoidance
  • Work disability
  • Depression
  • Pain behaviours

Selected biophysical contributing factors:

  • Initial scaphoid fracture
  • Complex regional pain syndrome type i
  • Reduced range of movement and strength
  • Central sensitisation (more…)

Case formulation: A simplified example


Over the past few days I’ve been posting about case formulation. While I’ve presented the abductive theory of method (ATOM) which is a process of inferring from phenomena to underlying causal mechanisms, it’s not the only way to develop a formulation.  I posted on some of the other ways formulations can be developed, and today I’m going to describe a simplified formulation to show how it can work in practice. Don’t forget that when I write about patients I make sure details that can identify the individual are changed – or I describe a composite of several patients.

Robert is a 39 year old previously self-employed electrician who sustained a fracture of a his nondominant hand when he fell from a ladder two years ago.  This fracture developed into a complex regional pain disorder type i which had been slowly resolving with the use of medication, functional restoration (graded daily use of the hand), and mirrorbox therapy.  Robert presented for pain management assessment when his progress plateaued, and he became increasingly distressed.

He was assessed in a three-part comprehensive pain assessment in which he was seen by a pain management medical specialist, a functional assessor and a psychosocial assessor.  He completed a set of questionnaires prior to the assessment which were used to ‘flag’ areas for closer investigation.  Information was made available from the referrer (the GP), the case manager (clinical notes from the orthopaedic surgeon and initial physiotherapy treatment provider), and an initial workplace assessment which provided details of his work demands.

The medical assessment consists of reviewing his previous medical history, a full musculoskeletal examination, general ‘systems’ examination, current and past medications used for pain management, and pain specific examination.  The purpose is to identify whether all the appropriate investigations have been completed, the appropriate medical treatments have been pursued, and the medication regime is rationalised. (more…)

Case formulation – the next few steps


Over the past few days I’ve been writing about case formulation because in pain management, it’s rare to find only one single causal factor that is influencing either the pain or the disability. Most times we are looking at many factors coming from all three areas of the biopsychosocial model.

In each person, the relationships between and combinations of these factors will be unique. And that’s the value of a case formulation as opposed to a diagnosis, which is more like ‘shorthand’ for a group of symptoms that go together and are supposedly linked by a causal mechanism (in the case of non-mental health problems).

After identifying stable phenomena (symptoms that are present over time and in different places), the next step is to identify the underlying biopsychosocial causal factors that produce the phenomena we see, and the relationships between these factors as they interact. (more…)

Some readings!


Here are a couple of readings on case formulation…

Enjoy ’em!

This one is a chapter from a book ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in Mental Health Care’, this chapter is written by Alec Grant, Jem Mills, Ronan Mulhern and Nigel Short, and discusses cognitive behavioural case formulation as a method for strengthening the therapeutic relationship, as well as describing some of the models used in cognitive behavioural therapy for mental health.

This paper is written by Eoin Stephens, from PCI College & Centre for Sexual Addictions.  It discusses some of the pro’s and con’s of the approach. (more…)

Case Formulation – a diagram illustrating the first stage


This is an illustration of the first step of case formulation – identifying patterns from the data collected, using a range of ways to obtain the information so that it can be relied upon for both accuracy and to cover the range of possible features of the person’s presentation. (more…)

Case formulation: Abductive reasoning applied


ResearchBlogging.org
Before moving on any further with the ATOM (abductive theory of method) as used in case formulation, I need to define what is data and what is phenomenon. Haig defines data as individual pieces of information, often unique to the person or situation, whereas phenomenon are patterns amongst those pieces of data that form distinctive features.

For example, difficulty getting off to sleep, lack of energy and poor appetite are data; when they’re tied together with tearfulness and feelings of guilt and poor concentration, and occur over the period of at least two weeks and are causing problems in work, home and social life, we can call it part of a pattern that we recognise as depression. Data are the evidence for the underlying phenomenon, they’re visible or reportable, but in themselves are not patterns.

But giving it a name doesn’t mean it’s now a case formulation – we need to sift through other pieces of data and phenomenon to identify relationships between factors to start to create an explanation for how and why it is occurring. This is abductive reasoning and this is also case formulation. It ‘takes us from descriptions of data patterns to one or more plausible explanations of those phenomena. This explanatory move is from presumed effect(s) to underlying causal mechanisms.’ (more…)

An introduction to case formulation


ResearchBlogging.org

One definition of case formulation is ‘Case formulation aims to describe a person’s presenting problems and use theory to make explanatory inferences about causes and maintaining factors that can inform interventions’. What this means is that it is essentially a story not just to describe, but explain, how a person’s problem has developed, and how it is maintained so that treatments can be based on influencing those factors.

There are many different frameworks for case formulation, but several key elements are usually present:

  1. a description of the presenting issues;
  2. the factors that act to create vulnerability or precipitate the problems developing;
  3. factors that may not have been involved in the initial problem developing, but are helping to maintain the problems; and finally,
  4. factors that can help the person cope or act as resources.

To move beyond just describing these factors, a case formulation should describe the relationships between these various factors and the problems that are present – and should reflect not just the visible features of the problem (ie what we can see, or what the person reports that are unique to his or her situation), but also the underlying phenomena or stable, recognisable features that are present. (more…)

Revelation: I’m experimenting on patients!!


Actually, the heading should read ‘I’m experimenting on with patients!

Does that not help?  Sorry, perhaps I should unpack what I mean!

Chronic pain, or actually, chronic disability associated with pain, is multifactorial.  What that means is there are many different factors that influence how and why a person has chronic pain and disability.  It also means that each person is likely to have a different set of factors that is contributing to why they are having this set of problems in this specific situation.

And the implications of this are that it’s highly unlikely that any one single treatment will ‘work’ to ‘fix’ the problem! In fact, the only time we can be certain about our treatments is when the following conditions are met:

  • a reliable and valid diagnosis
  • with a well-defined explanation for the cause of the pain
  • and known patient selection criteria
  • that predict a positive response to treatment
  • with known mechanisms of response

This doesn’t happen often, especially with chronic low back pain – and as a result, we’re probably using a working hypothesis when we’re choosing a treatment.  And guess what? That’s exactly what an experiment is – following a systematic process to establish whether the results support a specific hypothesis.

Oooops.  Are you guilty too? (more…)