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Tag: Diagnosis

Your Doctor’s Brain

I have a split medical personality.  On one hand, I am a pediatrician;  I light up around babies and love to mess around with little kids.  On the other hand, I am an Internist; I love complex problems and love talking to the elderly.  But the one part of internal medicine which gives me perhaps the most joy is the opportunity to solve medical puzzles.  Yes, pediatrics has puzzles in it too, but they are far more common in adults.

The term used for a medical puzzle-solver is diagnostician.  It is always a great compliment to a physician to be called a great diagnostician.  It means you are a good thinker, have a good store of facts, know how to organize your thoughts properly, and can see patterns in things you otherwise would never have found.  It is the Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Whimsey, or Harry Dresden side of medicine.  The diagnostician searches for clues, but especially searches where they are most often missed: right out in the open.

I am not sure anyone has called me a good diagnostician, but there are few things that give as much satisfaction in my job.  It calls on my creativity, my memory, my mental organization, my ability to ask questions, my power of observation, and my ability to put all the disparate pieces together to form a cohesive whole.  It’s not just coming up with an answer; it’s coming up with a plan.Continue reading…

Why You Are (Probably) Already Using The Most Powerful Digital Health App

Among the most frustrating dilemmas facing patients – and physicians – is when doctors are unable to assign a specific diagnosis.  Just having a name for a condition can be remarkably reassuring to patients (and families), providing at least a basic framework, a set of expectations, and perhaps most importantly, an explanation for what the patient is experiencing.

Sara Wheeler, writing in the New York Times in 1999, poignantly described the experience of traveling through “the land of no diagnosis.”  Ten years later, the NYT featured a story called “What’s Wrong with Summer Stiers,” about another patient without a diagnosis – and about a fascinating initiative at the NIH, the “Undiagnosed Disease Program” – specifically created to meet this need.

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Moments of Failure

There was a night when I was in training that all the decisions, disasters and chaos, which are the practice of medicine, caught up to me.  In those dark hours, I felt practically despondent.  What I had seen left me in tears and overwhelmed by the tasks in front of me.

At that moment a wise attending physician took a moment to sit with me.  Rather than tell me how wonderful a doctor I might someday become or brush away my errors, he validated my feelings.  He said the best doctors cared, worked hard and sacrificed. However, that the basic driving force is fear and guilt.  Fear for the mistakes you might make. Guilt for the mistakes you already had.  How I handled those feelings would determine how good a doctor I became.

I have reflected on those words over the years and tried to use that sage advice to learn and grow.  Focused properly, guilt gives one the incentive to re-evaluate patient care that has not been ideal.  It drives the study and the dissection of past decisions.  Nonetheless, excessive guilt can cause a doctor to avoid completely certain types of cases and refuse even the discussion of those medical issues.

Fear of error drives compulsive and exact care.  It helps doctors study and constantly improve.   Taken too far it can result in over testing, avoidance and over treatment.  The art of medicine requires the practitioner to open his heart to criticism and be strong enough to build from failure.

Some years ago, I saw a patient who had leukemia.  I concluded that the patient’s low blood count was because of this blood cancer.  This was correct.   I missed that in addition to the leukemia she was bleeding from a stomach ulcer.  By the time another doctor spotted the ulcer, the patient was sicker than she might have been, had I made that diagnosis earlier.

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A Normal Pregnancy Is a Retrospective Diagnosis

The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals involved.

If every medical specialty has its homily for indoctrinating new members, “a normal pregnancy is a retrospective diagnosis” is the cynical soundbite for obstetrics. It is a patronizing and alarmist statement, meant to distance weary practitioners, terrify patients, silence objections from families, and establish the first defensive perimeter in the legal fortress that defines obstetrical practice in the US.

It is also the perfect, if inadvertent expression of how little obstetricians really know – and how limited the specialty is in its ability to test and expand that knowledge – thanks in part to the visceral fear inspired in patients by statements like “a normal pregnancy is a retrospective diagnosis.”

This homily serves as the opening taunt to one of the more quietly rebellious obstetrician/gynecologists (OB/GYNs) in my new book, Catching Babies. For reasons I’ll explain momentarily, the book began as an expose of the practice of high-risk obstetrics, but it quickly morphed into a novel, an ensemble drama about the brutalization of OB/GYNs during their residency training.

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Is That Thorazine in the Baby’s Bottle?

One of the most disturbing trends in mental health today is the increasing use of powerful antipsychotic medication to treat behavioral problems in children, even very young children. According to a 2009 report by the Food and Drug Administration, there are 500,000 children in the United States being administered regular doses of antipsychotics. Medicaid data shows public health monies spent on antipsychotic drugs for children exceeding $30 million in New Jersey and topping $90 million in Texas. It is a trend that has built relentlessly for the past ten years and continues unabated.

I find the use of these drugs on children to be appalling almost beyond words. Having worked as a mental health professional for many years, I am well acquainted with these medications. This class of drugs, sometimes referred to as neuroleptics, are major tranquilizers and are primarily used and intended for controlling hallucinations and delusions in cases of psychosis and schizophrenia. For an adult with severe schizophrenia, these medications may be a glimmer of hope, but it is always a difficult risk-benefit analysis because there are potentially severe side effects and reactions. Permanent neurological damage can occur in the form of tardive dyskenisia, and sudden death can occur from a reaction called neuroleptic malignancy syndrome. With newer forms of antipsychotics, these type of side effects are less frequent and less severe, but continue to be a risk depending on the reaction of the individual’s body. However, newer, “atypical,” antipsychotics present new dangers to the patient, metabolic changes that result in a dramatic increase in the instances and severity of diabetes and heart disease. The result is that adults on antipsychotic medications have a life span that is 20 years shorter then the average person.Continue reading…

Computers in 2020

It is 2020.   Computer evaluation of patients before they visit their doctors has come a long way.

Medical records containing  demographic  data,   personal histories,  medication use,  allergies, laboratory results,  radiologic images,  electrocardiograms, rhythm strips, and even the chief complaint and symptoms of the patient ‘s  present illness, as spoken and digitized by the patient,  are available prior to the visit.

These records, synthesized, summarized,  algorithmized,  and otherwise massaged by massive computer banks,  give doctors everything they want to know before seeing ore examining the patient.

  • the differential diagnosis,
  • the most likely cause of the visit,
  • optimal treatment options,
  • a review of recent medical literature in the last 24 hours on the subject,
  • the best current medical practices,
  • the best value for the dollars in the immediate region and at national centers,
  • the best, most cost-effective and results-effective,  specialists  and medical centers  where  to go should further evaluation be needed.
  • the tests and procedures to be done before the patient leaves the office.

This barrage of information is available to consumers and physicians alike before and immediately after the visit.   Furthermore,  with advances in speech recognition,  patients and doctors will be able to talk to the computer in each other’s presence, ask questions, and settle any lingering doubt.Continue reading…

Another Devastating Diagnosis to Face

I have stomach cancer and will undergo surgery to remove part or all of my stomach today.

While a truly expert blogger would have documented the facts and his perceptions from the moment of discovery, I have been preoccupied with absorbing the shock, weighing my options and managing the logistics. I have been short on insight, long on anxiety.

But I have regained some composure since finalizing the plan for my immediate future, so I thought I’d try to capture some of my observations about this wild period this time around. After all, I listen all the time to people talk about how they experience these few weeks between a serious diagnosis and the beginning of treatment and, having gone through it repeatedly myself, I have a lot to compare it to.

A little background: This is my fourth different cancer-related diagnosis. My stomach cancer was discovered due to the vigilance of my primary care doctor who treats adult survivors of childhood cancer and who leaves no symptom – regardless of how minor – unexplored. I had dismissed my insignificant symptom once it disappeared after a few days. However, my doctor didn’t, and it turned out to be a small gastric tumor, probably a result of the high doses of radiation that were the standard of treatment for my stage of Hodgkin’s disease in the early 1970s. The tumor will be removed Monday, along with as much of my stomach as is necessary to prevent its recurrence. While the size of the tumor and its staging leave me optimistic that I won’t need chemotherapy and radiation, I won’t know for certain until a week after surgery.

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