Tuesday, July 12, 2011

So one of my patients was just* diagnosed with cancer. The psychiatrist e-mailed me. The psychiatrist, because we'd thought that all of her symptoms were related to her (overwhelming) anxiety and rushed her out of the hospital.

(*N.B. this post was quarantined for several months, in addition to changing of several possible demographic features to ensure that there is no clear connection to any specific patient)

I had inherited the patient from the previous intern when I came on, which is always hard, because you don't really get your own first impression. My attending had felt really strongly about the psychiatric nature of her symptoms and about rushing her out of the hospital. I wasn't sure I agreed, but I didn't have a strong sense of the patient and my attending was very strong willed. On the second to last day of her admission, I talked on the phone with the psychiatrist and she had said to me: "you know, I'm still not convinced that all of her symptoms are psychiatric" and I'd replied "off the record, I'm not sure either."

But to be fair, the next words I'd said were: "but I am convinced that she has nothing physiologic that is rapidly progressive or threatening her well-being or will benefit from an inpatient admission." And that, even with the retrospectoscope, I completely stand behind. I'm not even convinced, even now, knowing that we're discussing a patient with a metastatic malignancy diagnosed one week later, that any of the symptoms for which she was admitted have anything to do with her cancer. (She got diagnosed after presenting with a totally new symptom a week after discharge)

You hear these horror stories of missed cancer diagnoses, by Horrible-Bad-Doctors and think "how could they not have known." And the answer, at least in this case is two-fold
1. Patients with high levels of anxiety and high levels of somatization bombard you with every complaint that they can think of and every possible diagnosis that they read in the internet and it's hard to see the forest for the trees. You think "well, I can't think of a diagnosis that contains all of those symptoms" and "all of the diagnoses that this patient has suggested don't fit" so you dismiss the entire package. And 99% of the time, that's the right response. But even hypochondriacs and patients who somaticize develop true organic illness, buried among the somatic complaints.
2. The goals of a hospital admission from the point of view of being a doctor are different than the goals of a hospital admission from the point of view of being a patient. As a doctor, a patient should be in the hospital only so long as necessary to establish a safe discharge (in which airway, breathing, circulation and hydration/nutrition can be accomplished.) It's my job in the hospital to make sure that the patient doesn't have anything rapidly progressing that would make them unsafe, but not my job to diagnose every symptom. Diagnosis is largely left to the outpatient realm.

It's still scary. I'm glad someone diagnosed it.

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