Always Looking for Zebras

In everyday clinical practice, we see mostly ordinary things. But our job description requires us to always at least consider the unusual. It takes judgement and experience to navigate between being efficient and not missing something rare or dangerous.

This past week, I have seen a couple of patients that made me dig a little deeper into their symptoms.

One man came in with a six month history of skin rashes. He seemed to have several kinds. Some were isolated little papules on a red background. He said he had had that kind now and then for many years. Some were scaly blotches with bumpy edges and some were red patches with little craters within them.

A few of the lesions reminded me of dermatitis herpetiformis, so I asked “have you had any trouble with your bowels lately?”

“Well, yes, they’ve been real loose.” He seemed surprised by my question.

“How many times a day?” I asked.

“At least three or four”, he answered.

I minimized the EMR and googled images of dermatitis herpetiformis, which is usually seen with celiac disease, but sometimes without full blown bowel disease. He agreed that some of the pictures looked a bit familiar. I ordered a celiac panel. If that is negative, I’ll do a skin biopsy, but none of the lesions I saw were quite classic, so maybe I’ll do a couple of them.

Another patient with longstanding anxiety disorder had a very elevated blood pressure, which I had never seen in her before. She told me she has seen numbers from 120 to 180.

“Why have you been checking your blood pressure to begin with?” I asked.

“Because I break into a sweat and feel dizzy sometimes”, she explained.

Here we go again, I thought to myself. Another instance to look for a pheochromocytoma. Most of the time when we look for this rare cause of spells with high blood pressure, we don’t find it, but you have to look.

We must be careful not to zero in too quickly on the presenting complaint. That is like wearing blinders, like the horses pulling the Amish buggies down the road from me. But at the same time we can’t scan the horizon so much that we become scattered and paranoid.

The Art of Asking: What Else is Going on?

The App That Helps Me Be a More Patient Centered Physician

One of the most rewarding things I do in my clinic happens on my iPhone.

When I sit down with a middle aged patient to talk about their cardiovascular risk, I open the risk calculator created by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. I talk my way through as I enter the parameters – age, blood pressure, lipid numbers, smoking history and so on. Then I write down their ten year risk on a piece of paper next to the “ideal” risk for a person that age, for example 8% risk versus ideal 3%.

I explain that statin drugs may lower anybody’s risk by 30-50%, which is more important to consider the higher their risk is, because half of almost nothing is almost nothing.

I also write down the opposite numbers: 92% chance that nothing bad will happen versus 97%. That number, to most patients, seems less dramatic than “almost tripled risk” in the first set of numbers.

Next, I fast forward a few years. Both my patient and Mr. or Ms. Perfect are then older and have a greater risk. I can then also show what the risk would be if they had quit smoking, controlled their blood pressure or developed diabetes during that time.

I write down the new risk numbers with notations of the hypothetical new blood pressure and so on. And inevitably I also end up pointing out that the guideline that accompanies the calculator would have just about every 65 year old, even Mr./Ms. Perfect, take statin drugs. I always get the same incredulous reaction to that one.

Next, I mention the Hale study, which showed that older patients who follow a Mediterranean diet have 50% less cardiovascular disease than people who eat a more typical Western diet. But, of course, maybe the diet choices are also linked to other lifestyle factors.

Lastly, I mention that this calculator does not take family history into consideration.

The conversation this little app generates is, in a way, what medicine today is all about. We have lots of data, but the Art of Medicine is figuring out if and how the statistics apply to an individual patient. And, of course, laying out the options so our patients see them clearly and can decide for themselves.

(For more on lipid guidelines, statins and the Mediterranean diet, check out the video below. More videos at A COUNTRY DOCTOR TALKS.)


Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

BOOKS BY HANS DUVEFELT, MD

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