When the Patient Can’t Tell You

Today I had a followup appointment with a young adult male with severe intellectual disabilities. He is barely verbal. Several weeks ago his caregiver told me that this young man often pointed to his chest and would say “hurt” or “heart”, they weren’t sure which. He also seemed to have gotten pickier about his food, and would literally pick at the food on his plate as if examining it. His appetite was definitely down, but he hadn’t lost any weight yet.

Jimmy is young and slender, not a smoker, and has no cardiovascular disease in his family, so I prescribed him omeprazole.

“So, how’s Jimmy doing”, I asked.

“He doesn’t bang his chest and say hurt anymore, and he finishes anything we put in front of him” was the answer. “And you know what, I didn’t say anything last time, but he’s been kind of grouchy lately, but that’s all gone, too. He’s like the kid I first met years ago, always in a good mood.”

“It’s humbling”, I reflected, “to care for someone who can’t tell you very much about how they feel. I’m glad you were so observant.”

(A brief aside about the Metamedicine aspects of this case: My first prescription for omeprazole was for thirty days and it had one refill. Jimmy’s caregiver said Mainecare wouldn’t honor the refill because chronic medications must be prescribed for 90 days, so he bought the omeprazole over the counter. I shrugged and told him that after sixty days a prior authorization is needed. So, even a “correct” 90 day refill would not have gone through. So we switched to famotidine and if that doesn’t work, we’ll apply for a Prior Authorization for the omeprazole.)

My visit with Jimmy made me think, again, about the importance of the medical history. Even an observer’s report is better than any number of tests.

Even people with normal intellectual functioning can be hard to diagnose because of ther inability to describe what they feel. I have written before about alexithymia, the inability to recognize and describe one’s feelings. These are the people who, when asked to describe their symptoms, start telling you what other people said about how they looked or how they acted. I had seen many people who were like that, but had never heard of the word that populated my Google search when I typed in my observations in the search window.

Primary Care, and perhaps even more Pediatrics can be like veterinary medicine: the patient doesn’t always TELL you his symptoms. Sometimes he shows you, and sometimes others report their observations to you, but it is your responsibility to make sense of it all and come up with a diagnosis.

0 Responses to “When the Patient Can’t Tell You”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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”.



Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Top 25 Doctor Blogs Award

Doctor Blogs

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


contact @ acountrydoctorwrites.com
Bookmark and Share
© A Country Doctor Writes, LLC 2008-2022 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given.

%d bloggers like this: