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Two Patients With More Than One Diagnosis

BY HANS DUVEFELT

I have written many times about how I have made a better diagnosis than the doctor who saw my patient in the emergency room. That doesn’t mean I’m smarter or even that I have a better batting average. I don’t know how often it is the other way around, but I do know that sometimes I’m wrong about what causes my patient’s symptoms.

We all work under certain pressures, from overbooked clinic schedules to overfilled emergency room waiting areas, from “poor historians” (patients who can’t describe their symptoms or their timeline very well) to our own mental fatigue after many hours on the job.

My purpose in writing about these cases is to show how disease, the enemy in clinical practice if you will, can present and evolve in ways that can fool any one of us. We simply can’t evaluate every symptom to its absolute fullest. That would clog “the system” and leave many patients entirely without care. So we formulate the most reasonable diagnosis and treatment plan we can and tell the patient or their caregiver that they will need followup, especially if symptoms change or get worse.

Martha is a group home resident with intellectual disabilities, who once underwent a drastic change in her behavior and self care skills. She even seemed a bit lethargic. A big workup in the emergency room could only demonstrate one abnormality: Her head CT showed a massive sinus infection. She got antibiotics and perked up with a ten day course of antibiotics.

A month later, her condition deteriorated again. It was on the weekend. This time she had a mild cough. Her chest X-ray showed double sided pneumonia. She got antibiotics again and started to feel better.

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