Clinical Practice Guideline
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Background: The lifetime prevalence of schizophrenia is 1%. Schizophrenia is among the most severe mental illnesses and gives rise to the highest treatment costs per patient of any disease. It is characterized by frequent relapses, marked impairment of quality of life, and reduced social and work participation.
Methods: The group entrusted with the creation of the German clinical practice guideline was chosen to be representative and pluralistic in its composition. It carried out a systematic review of the relevant literature up to March 2018 and identified a total of 13 389 publications, five source guidelines, three other relevant German clinical practice guidelines, and four reference guidelines.
Results: As the available antipsychotic drugs do not differ to any great extent in efficacy, it is recommended that acute antipsychotic drug therapy should be side-effect-driven, with a number needed to treat (NNT) of 5 to 8. The choice of treatment should take motor, metabolic, sexual, cardiac, and hematopoietic considerations into account. Ongoing antipsychotic treatment is recommended to prevent relapses (NNT: 3) and should be re-evaluated on a regular basis in every case. It is also recommended, with recommendation grades ranging from strong to intermediate, that disorder- and manifestation-driven forms of psychotherapy and psychosocial therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for positive or negative manifestations (effect sizes ranging from d = 0.372 to d = 0.437) or psycho-education to prevent relapses (NNT: 9), should be used in combination with antipsychotic drug treatment. Further aspects include rehabilitation, the management of special treatment situations, care coordination, and quality management. A large body of evidence is available to provide a basis for guideline recommendations, particularly in the areas of pharmacotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Conclusion: The evidence-based diagnosis and treatment of persons with schizophrenia should be carried out in a multiprofessional process, with close involvement of the affected persons and the people closest to them.
Schizophrenia is one of the most severe mental illnesses. It has a point prevalence of 4.6 per 1000 inhabitants, a lifetime prevalence of around 1%, and the median reported incidence is 15 cases per 100 000 inhabitants (see  for details). Approximately two thirds of newly arising cases of schizophrenia occur before 45 years of age, i.e., in young to middle-aged adults. With regard to the clinical presentation, schizophrenia is characterized by a heterogeneous phenotype and a variable course, so one should really speak of a group of diseases, “the schizophrenias.” However, in accordance with the criteria for diagnosis and classification we used the singular “schizophrenia” for the guidelines. The disease is characterized by psychopathological disorders of perception, ego functions, affectivity, energy, and psychomotor function and by events that occur at particular junctures in the disease course (1). The latter is inter- and intraindividually variable: there may be one single episode, recurring episodes with no symptoms at all in between, relapses of increasing severity, or continuous illness with no periodic absence of symptoms. Although self-limiting episodes of schizophrenia are known to occur, the majority of episodes require multiprofessional treatment. The diagnosis is made in operationalized manner according to ICD-10 criteria. It is not only very important to differentiate schizophrenia from other mental illnesses; somatic diseases must also be considered as comorbidites or as causes for secondary psychoses.
One important factor that has, so far, received little attention is the very high mortality rate. Studies show that schizophrenia reduces life expectancy by anything from 10 to 25 years (2, 3). There are many reasons for the elevated mortality: increased suicidality (especially in the early years of illness), the occurrence of somatic diseases, underdiagnosis of somatic diseases, deficient self-care, and inadequate psychiatric/psychotherapeutic treatment, as well as aspects of treatment-associated adverse effects (1, 4, 5). Around 10% of persons in whom schizophrenia is diagnosed for the first time attempt suicide in the 12 months following diagnosis, and one can conclude, depending on the individual survey, that 5 to 15% of persons with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder kill themselves (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12). An example of the underdiagnosis of somatic comorbidities is provided by a Swedish cohort study of 6 097 838 adults (including 8277 with schizophrenia): In both women (hazard ratio 3.33, 95% confidence interval [2.73; 4.05]) and men (2.20 [1.83; 2.65]) with schizophrenia, death due to ischemic heart disease occurred more frequently than in the rest of the population. Furthermore, the likelihood of timely diagnosis was significantly lower in those with schizophrenia (26.3% versus 43.7%). The figures for cancer disease were similar (13). Other clinically relevant characteristics that are associated with schizophrenia and are often interrelated are marked stigmatization; associations with previous trauma and experience of violence (the mean proportion of persons with schizophrenia who fulfill the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] is as high as 30% ); a high prevalence of comorbid substance dependency (principally tobacco (prevalence up to 80% ), alcohol, and cannabis (mean prevalences ~25% ); high rates of unemployment and homelessness (~12% of homeless persons have a psychotic disease ); and reduced social participation.
The new German clinical practice guidelines
The clinical practice guidelines on schizophrenia published in 2019 represent a comprehensive revision and expansion of the two previous versions from 1998 and 2006. Each of these earlier documents was conceived, developed, and published as patient-centered, evidence-based, and consensus-based guidelines in accordance with the rules and standards of the Association of the Scientific Medical Societies in Germany (AWMF) (1).
The guideline revision was undertaken by a committee of persons representative of the intended users, divided into a steering group, an extended steering group, a consensus group, and an additional expert group (eBox 1). For the purpose of revision the subject matter was divided into modules, each dealt with by a dedicated working group in a multistage process (see ):
- Formulation and agreement of clinical issues within the guidelines group
- Identification and methodological evaluation of existing guidelines on schizophrenia (for the purpose of guideline adaptation)
- Systematic search of the literature with regard to questions not adequately answered by guideline adaptation (start date: 3 March 2016, last research: 1 March 2018)
- Systematic selection and evaluation of the evidence
- Formulation of recommendations and suggestions for recommendation grades by the module working groups and the steering group according to the PICO (patient population, intervention, comparison, outcome) scheme (19)
- Adoption of the recommendations and structured consensus building (consensus conferences and written Delphi process)
- Internal and external reviewing and adoption of the guidelines
Only guidelines of high methodological quality on relevant topics were used as sources (20, 21, 22, 23, 24). Domain 3 (Methodological Rigour of Development) of the German Instrument for Methodological Guideline Appraisal (DELBI) was used for assessment. Gradations of evidence and wordings of recommendations from these source guidelines were adapted for use in the revised guidelines. Further sources of recommendations on dependency-specific topics were two AWMF clinical practice guidelines (15, 25). An overview of the guidelines from Germany and other countries that were used, together with related AWMF guidelines, can be found in eTable 1. Moreover, for some of the guideline recommendations systematic de novo research was carried out (eFigure 1), while for other recommendations not based on evidence clinical consensus points were compiled.
Updated content in the revised guidelines
The modular structure of the guidelines is intended to enable future revision on the lines of the “living guidelines” principle. Box 1 summarizes the most important changes in the revised clinical practice guidelines, described in more detail below.
Diagnosis and differential diagnosis
As stated above, schizophrenia is diagnosed according to the operationalized criteria of ICD-10 (eFigure 2). However, the guidelines give a glimpse of the changes that can be anticipated in ICD-11. One particular innovation is the possibility of describing the course of the illness on the basis of symptom domains (positive symptoms, negative symptoms, cognitive disorders, psychomotor disorders, and affective disorders) (26). Much more importance is attached in the revised guidelines to aspects of organic differential diagnosis: recommendations were agreed with the intention of on the one hand detecting rare organic causes of schizophrenia (e.g., autoimmune encephalitis) in timely fashion, and on the other hand diagnosing the frequently occurring somatic comorbidities and integrating them into the overall treatment plan. eBox 2 presents the accompanying somatic disorders most commonly found in persons with schizophrenia, with the data expressed in terms of prevalence rates, incidence rates, or odds ratios.
General treatment principles
Modern psychiatric/psychotherapeutic treatment of persons with schizophrenia should always be multiprofessional, and all those involved in the treatment should maintain an empathetic, appreciative attitude. According to the guidelines, the “general goal of treatment [is] a person broadly free of symptoms of illness who is capable of living in a self-determined manner, has been informed about the therapeutic options, and is in the position to weigh up the risks and benefits thereof” (1). To achieve this, the elements of pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and psychosocial treatments should be offered in terms of an overall treatment plan with the close involvement of the person with schizophrenia together with their relatives or other reference persons. According to the evidence and consensus opinion, antipsychotic drug treatment alone is generally insufficient, as is renunciation of antipsychotic pharmacotherapy. Other forms of treatment, such as the use of antidepressants or neurostimulation procedures (e.g., electroconvulsive therapy), are reserved for particular indications (e.g., depressive syndromes or clozapine resistance).
Treatment with antipsychotics
Antipsychotics are highly effective with regard to the goals relevant to the disease (e.g., reduction of psychotic symptoms, prevention of relapse). For example, the largest meta-analysis with the highest quality methods shows a number needed to treat (NNT) of 3 for 1-year prevention of relapse (relapse rate 27% with antipsychotic treatment, 64% with placebo) (27). In respect of the therapeutic response in terms of reduction of psychotic experiences, another large-scale and high-quality meta-analysis shows an NNT of 5 or 8 for a minimal or good response (51%/23% with antipsychotic treatment, 30%/14% with placebo) (28). One basic innovation in the new German clinical practice guidelines is the emphasis on adverse effect–guided selection of the antipsychotic substances—abolishing the general prioritization of a specific substance group. Based on an adaptation of a NICE guideline (20) and on a meta-analysis (29), the following definition was formulated: “We recommend offering antipsychotics at a dose that is within the range recommended by the respective international consensuses and is as low as possible and as high as necessary (lowest possible dose)”. A low dose should be chosen particularly in patients suffering their first episode of schizophrenia, who are more vulnerable to adverse effects and overall respond better to low dosages. It is important that treatment to reduce psychotic symptoms be offered in the form of antipsychotic monotherapy. The recommendation of monotherapy is justified especially on grounds of better tractability and a lower risk of adverse effects and drug interactions. Moreover, nearly all of the source studies and meta-analyses investigated antipsychotics given as monotherapy.
For the first time, and uniquely worldwide, clinical consensus point (CCP) recommendations on the discontinuation of antipsychotic medication were agreed. This should not be defined as the primary course of action, however, because of the low recommendation grade (“may be considered”) compared with administration of antipsychotics to prevent relapse (“we recommend”). Nevertheless, suggestions, recommendations, and strategies are now in place for dealing with the routinely expressed request from both patients and their relatives for antipsychotic medication to be stopped. It is important, in clinical practice, to state that treatment does not end with discontinuation of the medication. On the contrary, regular, coordinated outpatient psychiatric and/or psychotherapeutic follow-up visits should continue for at least 2 years, with two goals: (1) early detection of signs and symptoms of an impending relapse (e.g., sleep disorders, a brief psychotic episode, depressive symptoms, inner unrest); (2) implementation of interventions to help manage stress or structure daily activities. It is vital for treatment to continue beyond supervised discontinuation of drug intake.
In contrast to the guideline recommendation of monotherapy, however, in clinical practice the use of polypharmacy is growing, particularly later in the disease course (30). This discrepancy between clinical practice and evidence was addressed as follows: According to the revised guidelines, a combination of two antipsychotics should be given (recommendation grade CCP) only after the failure of three previous attempts at antipsychotic treatment of adequate dosage and duration—including a course of clozapine—as monotherapy (recommendation 43, recommendation grade A, and recommendation 46, recommendation grade A). The addition of a second antipsychotic or an antidepressant for the temporary treatment of unrest, sleep disorders, elevated prolactin concentration, or depressive symptoms is considered separately in the guidelines—this special situation does not fall under the described recommendation to offer monotherapy, but when any additional substance is given, one must bear in mind the possible increase in adverse effects and monitor the patient accordingly. The Table and eTable 2 summarize the meta-analyses cited in the guidelines and list the corresponding recommendations. The Figure shows a treatment algorithm, derived from relevant recommendations, which focuses on antipsychotic treatment.
Psychotherapy and psychosocial treatments
The revised clinical practice guidelines place far more emphasis on psychotherapy. Combination of treatment with an antipsychotic substance and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is recommended for all persons with schizophrenia (effect size for positive symptoms: d = 0.372; for negative symptoms: d = 0.437). CBT should be offered (recommendation grade A). If CBT begins while the patient is in the hospital, it should be continued on an outpatient basis after discharge; the duration of treatment should be ≥ 16 sessions, and for optimization of treatment effects and in cases with more complex treatment goals ≥ 25 sessions should be offered (recommendation grade B). The inpatient and outpatient psychotherapeutic care available for persons with schizophrenia in Germany is clearly inadequate, although it remains unclear whether the previously very low rates of psychotherapy in this population have been increased by the extension of the indication to all phases of the disease by the Federal Joint Committee (G-BA) in 2014 (art. 26 para. 2 no. 4 of the G-BA’s Psychotherapy Guidelines) (1). Other psychotherapeutic procedures with recommendation grade A are psychoeducation (NNT = 9 in prevention of relapse), family interventions, cognitive remediation (a cognitive training and education process), and social competence training. The various procedures should be offered individually, depending on the indications in each case. eTable 3 shows the matrix of psychotherapeutic and psychosocial treatment procedures that can be offered depending on the indications and individual preferences. New in the revised guidelines is the recommendation (grade B) that CBT also be offered to those who reject antipsychotic drug treatment.
Management of adverse drug reactions
A large number of preparation-specific adverse drug reactions may be caused by antipsychotics, and these potential side effects must always be borne in mind when prescribing this type of medication. Accordingly, the clinical practice guidelines focus on adverse event–guided prescription of antipsychotic drugs. The following groups of adverse events must be particularly closely respected and monitored:
- Motor reactions
- Metabolic reactions
- Sexual dysfunction/prolactin-associated reactions
- Cardiac reactions
- Disorders of the hematopoietic system.
Specifically for metabolic reactions, the guidelines group approved new evidence-based recommendations in terms of a stepwise procedure for detection and treatment. eBox 3 defines a general stepwise process for the recognition and treatment of adverse events, while eTable 4 presents concrete recommendations for the detection and treatment of metabolic syndrome, a very common occurrence in persons with schizophrenia. eTable 5 shows the follow-up visits as defined by the guidelines group for persons receiving antipsychotic treatment, and eTable 6 lists the preparation-specific adverse events.
Problems in coordination of care
In practice, various problems may arise in coordination among caregivers. These can affect the transition from inpatient care to the post-hospital setting (day clinic, outpatient clinic, specialist medical care in the community), coordination in the area of outpatient care (specialist-centered treatment, psychotherapists, primary-care physicians, other parties), or the challenge of hospital admission in an acute phase of illness characterized by decreased or lacking insight. The new module 5 (coordination of care) is dedicated to these and other aspects of optimized organization of patient care. For example, one recommendation (grade CCP) is that whenever treatment by a multiprofessional team is required or intensification of psychopharmacological, psychotherapeutic, or psychosocial measures becomes necessary, it should be considered whether transfer to a specialized and multiprofessional psychiatric hospital outpatient service (Psychiatrische Institutsambulanz, PIA), or to a community care network in which more complex treatment programs are available if needed, might be beneficial (1). In another recommendation (CCP, strong consensus) the guidelines group defined indications for hospital admission. Inpatient treatment should be offered to all patients who would benefit from the diagnostic and therapeutic resources available in the hospital setting or from the special protection offered by the hospital in the case of acute danger to themselves or others. This would include, for example:
- Treatment resistance
- Acute suicidality
- States of severe delusion or anxiety
- Lack of proper nutrition or self-care
- Marked apathy or adynamia
- Domestic circumstances hindering remission and recovery
- Treatment of complicating comorbidities
- Complex treatment situations
- Unexplained somatic comorbidities
- Severe adverse drug reactions
- Other problems not amenable to outpatient care.
This incomplete list makes it clear that in patients who present acute danger to themselves or others, or lack insight, one must consider hospitalization under the terms of the Care Act and the laws of the federal state concerned. It also becomes apparent that the guidelines group has defined factors such as the lack of options for care, but most importantly somatic and mental comorbidities, as indications for admission to the hospital. These latter points routinely lead to discussions with the medical service of the health insurance providers in Germany (MDK) on whether hospital beds are being utilized unnecessarily.
The revised German clinical practice guidelines on schizophrenia contain recommendations on both the diagnostic work-up and the pharmacological, psychotherapeutic, and psychosocial treatment of persons with schizophrenia over their entire life span. To conform with the guidelines, the treatment of persons with schizophrenia must be multiprofessional with a basic attitude of empathy, respect, and appreciation on the part of the caregivers. The aim is to render those affected able to enjoy “full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms” (article 1, UN CRPD).
Clinical practice guidelines in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt, as in numerous other specialist journals, are not subject to a peer review procedure, since such guidelines represent texts that have already been evaluated, discussed, and broadly agreed upon multiple times by experts (peers).
We thank all the individuals and groups whose long-term, continuous, and constructive commitment made it possible to draw up this guideline. Thanks are due to the German Association for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics for its substantive, structural and financial support of the entire guideline process, without which revision of the guideline could not have been achieved.
We are particularly grateful to Prof. Kopp (AWMF-Institute for Medical Knowledge Management) for her balanced moderation and advice during the entire guideline development process.
Conflict of interest statement
Prof. Hasan has received consultancy honoraria from Lundbeck, Otsuka, Janssen, and Roche as well as speaker’s fees from Desitin, Lundbeck, Otsuka and Janssen. He is the editor of the WFSBP guideline on schizophrenia. He is a member of an IFCN guideline group on rTMS treatment of neurological and mental illnesses.
Prof. Falkai has received consultancy honoraria from Janssen, Richter Pharma, Servier, and Sage as well as speaker’s fees from Otsuka, Lundbeck, Janssen, and Richter Pharma.
Prof. Gaebel is a member of the Lundbeck International Neuroscience Foundation (LINF).
Dr. Lehmann states that no conflict of interest exists.
Translated from the original German by David Roseveare
Prof. Dr. med. Alkomiet Hasan
Bezirkskrankenhaus Augsburg, Klinik für Psychiatrie
Psychotherapie und Psychosomatik der Universität Augsburg
Medizinische Fakultät der Universität Augsburg
Dr.-Mack-Str. 1, 86156 Augsburg, Germany
Cite this as:
Hasan A, Falkai P, Lehmann I, Gaebel W: Clinical practice guideline: Schizophrenia. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2020; 117: 412–9.
For eReferences please refer to:
eTables, eBoxes and eFigures:
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, LMU Medical Center, Munich: Prof. Dr. med. Alkomiet Hasan, Prof. Dr. med. Peter Falkai
LVR Institute for Health Care Research, Cologne: Dr. Isabell Lehmann
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, LVR Hospital Düsseldorf, Faculty of Medicine, University of Düsseldorf: Prof. Dr. med. Wolfgang Gaebel
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