The questions clinicians never think to ask

The chief complaint was belly pain. He described the pain as both dull and crampy. It came and went, but bothered him the most on the same night of each week.

The notes from the primary care doctor show a thoughtful search for the underlying cause. There were comments about activity logs, blood tests, and imaging studies. Months later, it remained a mystery: He still had belly pain. The investigations did not reveal any physical causes for the aches in his abdomen.

When I asked him if he had pain anywhere now in his body, he looked at me, blinked, and then looked away. He remained mute.

The first note in the medical record was a standard template for vaccinations related to overseas travel. This international adventure would be a distant memory by the time the discomfort in his gut brought him back to the clinic.

His trip to the distant land was unhampered by children. Over ten years would pass before they were born.

I didn’t ask him about his family. I knew that they now had restraining orders against him.

The next entries in the medical record describe a different person: He no longer had concerns about belly pain. The primary care doctor in the public health clinic wrote sympathetic notes about his skin infections and paranoia. The social history noted that he was no longer in contact with his family, but did not offer any reasons why.

Physicians and nurses are trained to ask questions that are inappropriate in social settings (e.g., “Have you been passing gas?” “When was your last period?”). There are also questions that we never think to ask: We don’t believe the people under our care would ever do something so inappropriate.

Did he develop belly pain because he literally could not stomach what he was doing to his children?

Maybe I only imagined that he nodded when I asked him about spiritual distress.

Could spiritual distress look like schizophrenia?

Could guilt and shame look like schizophrenia?

Could efforts to mimic schizophrenia look like actual schizophrenia?

Could a desire for a reduced punishment look like schizophrenia?

I gave him a pencil and paper. “If you’d prefer to communicate through writing instead of speech, that’s okay. I’d like to know how I may best help you.”

His fingers grasped the pencil and paper for a few minutes. He looked at the floor. He then returned the pencil and paper to me before walking away.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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