The first patient I ever saw as a first year resident came in with a litany of complaints, not one of which I remember today except for one: he had doctorstipsonline . The reason I remember he had headaches isn’t because I spent so much time discussing them but rather the exact opposite: at the time I knew next to nothing about headaches and somehow managed to end the visit without ever addressing his at all, even though they were the primary reason he’d come to see me.
Then I rotated on a neurology service and actually learned quite a lot about headaches. Then when my patient came back to see me a few months later, I distinctly remember at that point not only being interested in his headaches but actually being excited to discuss them.
I often find myself thinking back to that experience when I’m confronted with a patient who has a complaint I can’t figure out, and I thought it would be useful to describe the various reactions doctors have in general to patients when they can’t figure out what’s wrong, why they have them, and what you can do as a patient to improve your chances in such situations of getting good care.
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Believing a wacky idea in and of itself isn’t wacky. Believing a wacky idea without proof, however, most certainly is. Likewise, disbelieving sensible ideas without disproving them when they’re disprovable is wacky as well. Unfortunately, patients are often guilty of the first thought error (“My diarrhea is caused by a brain tumor”) and doctors of the second (“brain tumors don’t cause diarrhea, so you can’t have a brain tumor”), leading in both instances to contentious doctor-patient relationships, missed diagnoses, and unnecessary suffering.
Doctors sometimes aren’t willing to order tests that patients think are necessary because they think the patient’s belief about what’s wrong is wacky; they sometimes suggest a patient’s symptoms are psychosomatic when every test they run is negative but the symptoms persist; and they sometimes offer explanations for symptoms the patient finds improbable but refuse to pursue the cause of the symptoms any further.
Sometimes these judgments are correct and sometimes they’re not—but the experience of being on the receiving end of them is always frustrating for patients. However, given that your doctor has medical training and you don’t, the best strategy to use in these situations may be to do your best to ensure you’re being handed judgments based on sound scientific reasoning rather than unconscious bias.
EXPERT VS. NOVICE THINKING
But even the most rational scientist is teeming with unconscious biases. So an even better strategy might be to attempt to leverage your doctor’s biases in your favor.
In order to do this, you first need to know how doctors are trained to think. Medical students typically employ what’s called “novice” thinking when trying to figure out what’s wrong with patients. They run through the entire list of everything known to cause the patient’s first symptom, then a second list of everything known to cause the patient’s second symptom, and so on. Then they look to see which diagnoses appear on all their lists and that new list becomes their list of “differential diagnoses.” It’s a cumbersome but powerful technique, its name notwithstanding. A seasoned attending physician, on the other hand, typically employs “expert” thinking, defined simply as thinking that relies on pattern recognition. I’ve seen carpal tunnel syndrome so many times I could diagnose it in my sleep—but only learned to recognize the pattern of finger tingling in the first, second, and third digits, pain, and weakness occurring most commonly at night by my initial use of “novice” thinking.
The main risk of relying on “expert” thinking is early closure—that is, of ceasing to consider what else might be causing a patient’s symptoms because the pattern seems so abundantly clear. Luckily, in most cases, it is clear.
But sometimes it isn’t. In those cases, your doctor may do one or more of the following things:
1. Revert to “novice” thinking. Which, in fact, is completely appropriate. We’re taught in medical school that approximately 90% of all diagnoses are made from the history, so if we can’t figure out what’s wrong, we’re supposed to go back to the patient’s story and dig some more. This also involves reading, thinking, and possibly doing more tests, for which your doctor may or may not have the stamina.
2. Ask a specialist for help. Which requires your doctor to recognize he or she is out of his or her depth and needs help.
3. Cram your symptoms into a diagnosis he or she does recognize, even if the fit is imperfect. Though this may seem at first glance like a thought error, it often yields the correct answer. We have a saying in medicine: uncommon presentations of common diseases are more common than common presentations of uncommon diseases. In other words, presenting with a set of symptoms that are unusual or atypical for a particular disease doesn’t rule out your having that disease, especially if that disease is common. Or as one of my medical school teachers put it: “A patient’s body often fails to read the textbook.”
4. Dismiss the cause of your symptoms as coming from stress, anxiety, or some other emotional disturbance. Sometimes your doctor is unable to identify a physical cause for your symptoms and turns reflexively to stress or anxiety as the explanation, given his or her awareness that the power of the mind to manufacture physical symptoms from psychological disturbances is not only well-documented in the medical literature but a common experience most of us have had (think of “butterflies” in your stomach when you’re nervous). And sometimes your doctor will be right. A physician named John Sarno knows this well and has a cohort of patients who seem to have benefited greatly from his theory that some forms of back pain are created by unconscious anger.
However, the diagnosis of stress and anxiety should never be made by exclusion (meaning every other reasonable possibility has been appropriately ruled out and stress and anxiety is all that’s left); rather, there should be positive evidence pointing to stress and anxiety as the cause (eg, you should actually be feeling stressed and anxious about something). Unfortunately, doctors frequently reach for a psychosomatic explanation for a patient’s symptoms when testing fails to reveal a physical explanation, thinking if they can’t find a physical cause then no physical cause exists. But this reasoning is as sloppy as it is common.
Just because science has produced more knowledge than any one person could ever master, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to imagine we’ve exhausted the limits of all there is to know (a notion as preposterous as it is unconsciously attractive). Just because your doctor doesn’t know the physical reason your wrist started hurting today doesn’t mean the pain is psychosomatic. A whole host of physical ailments bother people every day for which modern medicine has no explanation: overuse injuries (you’ve been walking all your life and for some reason now your heel starts to hurt); extra heart beats; twitching eyelid muscles; headaches.
5. Ignore or dismiss your symptoms. This is different from the application of a “tincture of time” that doctors often employ to see if symptoms will improve on their own (as they often do). Rather, this a reaction to being confronted with a problem your doctor doesn’t understand or know how to handle. That a doctor may ignore or dismiss your symptoms unconsciously (as I did with my first-ever patient) is no excuse for doing so.
A DOCTOR’S BIASES
Just which of the above approaches a doctor will take when confronted with symptoms he or she can’t figure out is determined both by his or her biases and life-condition—and all doctors struggle with both. To obtain the best performance from your doctor, your objective is to get him or her into a high a life-condition and as free from the influences of his or her biases (good and bad) as possible.