Medical problems can be uncovered by a history and physical exam

Bobby was admitted to the hospital once again with overwhelming fatigue and shortness of breath. Yet this 37 year old farmer looked the picture of health. He grew up on a farm rising before dawn, milking cows and working long days in the fields with hay or corn. He was never seriously ill as a child and was a good football halfback in high school.

But this was his third admission for evaluation. He had been through heart and lung tests and even a psychiatric examination but everything was coming up normal. As is usual at a University Hospital Bobby’s first “doctor” on that admission was Mike, a third year medical student who was being examined himself on his ability to evaluate a patient.

Mike spent about a hour going though Bobby’s extensive chart: normal blood count, electrolytes, liver function, kidney function, calcium, and thyroid tests. The urinalysis was normal, as was the chest X-Ray and EKG. He had baffled the medical residents, research fellows, and faculty – so what in the world could he contribute?

Bobby told his story once again, “I feel OK when not doing much, but when I try to climb a ladder or haul some hay I just feel all in. There’s no pain, but I just feel like keeling over.” His treadmill test showed that he was limited, but no sign of coronary artery disease.

Mike noted this history at the beginning of his new evaluation, the “chief complaint.”

“I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions you’ve probably been asked before, do you mind?”, asked Mike.

“Not if you can fix me up, I don’t want to die from this.”

“OK, let’s start way back. Tell me your story about growing up, I need to find all I can about you.”

So Mike became a listener and Bobby began to tell stories from childhood, some of which we’re pretty entertaining like tipping over outhouses at Halloween, once with a farmer inside!

“In fact, said Bobby, that guy was as mad as a hornet. We were running away, and I climbed over a fence, when he cut loose with his shotgun. Maybe he was just trying to scare us, but I took some buckshot in my rear.”

For some reason, this intrigued Mike. He hadn’t found anything in the prior records about trauma. “So what happened, did you need surgery?”

“No, but there were a bunch of skin holes and we only got out one or two pellets. It looked like I had chickenpox on my ass!”

Mike tucked this bit of information away and finished up with his hour long interview and taking of notes on family history, social history, occupational history, etc. He knew this was going to take hours to write up for his examiner. But as he was thinking, he couldn’t get his mind away from the puzzle of the shortness of breath: it didn’t seem to be heart disease, lung disease, or other organ failure, so what was it?

With an educated whim, Mike asked Bobby if anyone had ever listened to his bottom with a stethoscope. Bobby whooped, “Now wouldn’t that be something. No nobody’s touched my butt outside of my wife, that’s for sure.”

“Now Bobby this is going to seem more than a little crazy, but I’d like to check you there to see if the buckshot caused an unusual injury.”

“Hey, Doc I’m desperate. If you think putting your stethoscope on my ass is the answer, then what the heck” said Bobby laughing.

With Bobby prone and rear exposed, Mike could see the multiple buckshot scars on the right buttock and thigh. He couldn’t see any pulsations, but when he first placed his hand over the area he could feel a gushing sensation, which in medical terminology is called a “thrill’ – perhaps a misnomer for trill. But it was a definite harmonic vibration with each heart beat. The stethoscope was next applied and revealed a very loud (grade 6/6) “murmur” – another strange medical term from the older lexicon.

Mike wasn’t sure he had found the actual problem or, if so, anything could be done to fix it. The next day, on rounds with students, residents, and faculty zipping though the rounds with rapid file questions and orders they came to Bobby’s bed. Bobby was beaming and couldn’t contain himself, “Hey doctors, my bright young doctor here has found a murmur on my ass, how about that?”

Mike gulped, this wasn’t how he had planned to present the problem. He did manage to give the gunshot history and detail the physical findings. At first there was skepticism by the junior staff that the findings were significant. But the senior cardiologist was savvy and recognized the brilliance of Mike’s discovery. He said, “It’s pretty clear to me, that this patient has high output heart failure. I would guess that he must be loosing 50% of his cardiac output to a shunt between a large pelvic artery and vein. He can function OK at rest but goes into high output heart failure with exercise because of the shunt.”

Comment: That’s how it turned out. Bobby’s shunt was viewed with a dye contrast study and the vascular surgeons consulted. A large artery and vein had been joined together by the penetrating trauma of the buckshot. It was relatively straight forward surgery to close the shunt thus returning the blood flow to a normal pattern.

I wish I could say I was Mike in the story, but I was one of the many who missed the diagnosis. But I did learn that many medical problems can be uncovered by a good history followed by a detailed physical exam. As one professor said, “Listen to the patient with your eyes, ears, hands, and stethoscope.”

In many ways physicians have mistakenly moved away from the comprehensive physical exam in favor of the high tech evaluations.  Abraham Verghese who is a Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School has reminded us in a TED video talk about the importance of touch, listening and the laying on of hands.

Jim deMaine is a pulmonary physician who blogs at End of Life – thoughts from an MD.


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  • Suzi Q 38

    Incredible. Good story.
    i sometimes am frustrated and want to grab the doctor by his white jacket and say, just listen to me, dammit. Something is wrong.

    • James deMaine

      So true. We often don’t truly listen! Complicating this is the tendency to interrupt the patient so the story never gets a chance to be told. I hope you click on the link to Abraham Verghese. He’s trying hard to re-introduce the art of listening.

  • Shirie Leng

    Fantastic! What a great story. Not a computer or robot in sight!

  • SteveSC

    Nice story, but here’s the rub. Insurance companies don’t pay for results, or even time spent. Most would pay $150 to $200 for this evaluation. Given that it included an “hour long interview”, plus time to read the chart ahead of the interview, and “hours to write up”, even if an experienced MD could spend a lot less time on the chart review and write up you are still talking getting maybe $100 to $125 an hour. Not too bad, until you realize that he has to pay for people (the average doctor has 7 employees), an office, supplies, insurance, etc., which easily absorb $125 an hour, leaving the doctor with nothing (or owing money) for his magnificent effort.

    • heartdoc345

      That’s precisely why 3rd year medical students are so valuable for patients with hard-to-make diagnosis. They not only work for free, but they actually pay to be there!

      And in this case, the “free” physical exam led to RVU and facility-fee producing ultrasound, surgery, and post-surgical care, which I am sure was paid for by the insurance company.

      • James deMaine

        Agree with both comments above. Sometimes a referral to a university affiliated hospital pays off in unexpected ways.

  • Steven Reznick

    I read the accurate economic influenced comments of SteveSC and the problems of running a medical office but I believe the point of the story is that a thorough and comprehensive history taking session directs the evaluation. When it is followed by a comprehensive and thorough physical exam it directs the choice of technology and testing you order. I am not using the terminology comprehensive as defined by CMS in coding a visit as comprehensive. I am using in terms of starting at the peak of the scalp and examining most everything down to the tip of your toes. That takes time and traditional practices seeing 40 patients a day for a reduced fee just can not do this and survive.
    Economic models such as direct pay practices allow physicians to spend the time with patients that a traditional insurance governed and run practice is unable to. Centers of Excellence at University Centers allow patients to be seen by multiple levels of care providers which increases the likelihood that the root problem will be discovered.

  • Jessica Yaron

    The physician that did the Phase 1 clinical trials on healthy, normal males for Dobutamine once told me that 97% of diagnosis could be reached with a thorough history and physical exam.

  • drjoekosterich

    This is true. We worship the false god of technology