Editor’s note: Please read Dr. Yang’s entire Red Herring series for background prior to reading this post.
The patient really is fine.
She returned to the gastroenterology clinic several times for treatments to widen her esophagus. (It’s a neat procedure: The GI doctors insert a small balloon into the esophagus. They gently inflate the balloon to stretch the stricture a few millimeters. With repeated stretching, the esophagus will remain open.) The patient ate more. She stopped vomiting. Her weight increased.
For the sake of flow, I did not include two complications that occurred during the course of events:
Medication problems. Although I had written a letter to hospital staff that included the patient’s history and list of medications, the psychiatrists in the first hospital omitted one medication from the patient’s regimen. As a result, the patient developed distressing symptoms consistent with schizophrenia. (In some ways, this was a blessing, as this omission confirmed her diagnosis. As the patient had demonstrated minimal symptoms of schizophrenia as an outpatient, I would have been tempted to taper off medications… which could have resulted in an “unnecessary” hospitalization.) I suspect this error prolonged her hospitalization.
Transfers of care from outpatient to inpatient settings (and vice versa) are fraught with problems that often adversely affect the patient. People have proposed universal health records, care managers, and other devices to help minimize this potential for harm. For now, most of us continue to do the best we can with the current system.
Decisional capacity issues. After the patient was hospitalized the second time, the gastroenterologists had concerns about the patient’s ability to consent to the procedure to evaluate her esophagus. While she could communicate a choice, they had doubts that she could appreciate her condition and understand the risks and benefits of intervention. Her worker ended up going to the hospital to discuss the procedure together with the patient and physicians. We were fortunate that he was available to do this.
I wanted to share the tale of the Red Herring for three reasons:
All physicians are subject to bias. Patients can suffer as a result. Patients with psychiatric diagnoses sometimes do not receive appropriate medical attention simply because of diagnostic labels. This can occur even if patients are not demonstrating psychiatric symptoms at the time of the encounter. Physicians, including psychiatrists, may assume that these patients exaggerate or misreport medical symptoms. Alternatively, physicians may assume that medical symptoms are due solely to psychiatric conditions.
According to Wikipedia (not the best source of medical information, but anyway…), the prevalence of esophageal strictures is 7 to 23% in the US. The prevalence of schizophrenia is less than 1%. The prevalence of bulimia in the US is about 5%. Though esophageal strictures are more common than either psychiatric condition, we all somehow believed that the latter was the culprit in the case of the Red Herring.
We all often forget that people are not simply mind or body. People with psychiatric conditions still have physical bodies that can bleed, break, and hurt.
Physicians need time to provide good care. 15 minute appointments maximizes profits for organizations and physicians in private practice. 15 minute appointments often do not maximize benefit and value for patients. (To be fair, organizations and individuals need money to maintain clinics. If clinics go bankrupt, everyone loses.)
If I saw this patient for only 15 minutes, once a month, it would have taken me much longer to build a relationship with her. Without that relationship, I could not have directed her to go to the hospital. She would have (accurately) experienced that as coercion. Furthermore, my understanding of her symptoms and condition would have been limited.
If I only had 15 minutes a month with this patient, I would not have been able to advocate for her as I did. If we want our physicians to provide this level of care, we all must recognize that physicians need time to do so. (My patient was enrolled in a program for individuals with severe psychiatric conditions. My “caseload” of patients was purposely kept low; this allowed me to spend a flexible amount of time with people and to see them on a more frequent basis.)
Physicians must advocate for their patients. For those patients who are able to advocate for themselves, we must encourage them to do just that. Helping patients obtain the services they need to lead healthy, independent lives with limited contact with medical establishments should be one of our primary goals. This is particularly true in psychiatry: we should do what we can to get people out of the mental health system so they can get on with living their lives.
For those patients who cannot advocate for themselves, we must advocate for them. They otherwise will not receive the care and interventions they need to maximize the chances that they can lead healthy, independent lives. We have all read articles citing the enormous financial costs associated with undertreated or untreated medical problems. Furthermore, we will have failed our moral obligation to promote beneficience.
Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at In White Ink.
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