Honesty and uncertainty: A patient writes.

https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6803 (Published 08 January 2020)

I have many experiences of managing uncertainty about the clinical explanation for the patient’s illness. Many of these patients get referred on to a consultant clinic, further investigations and expertise bring some sense of narrative or explanation, a plan is set out and treatment is recommended.

Sometimes, this doesn’t go well. The tests show nothing, the specialists discharge the patient without a diagnosis, suggesting another specialism. The patient ends up waiting for another referral, another test, another GP is consulted for new avenues to explore.The burden of worry grows, the burden of investigation, of waiting and of ineffective treatment gets heavier and larger.

Many of these patients have symptoms that appear to be neurological in origin. They impair function, such as mobility, use of a limb, speech, concentration, and stamina. These symptoms get labelled as functional disorders.

This patient writes powerfully about how two clinical teams approached his illness. The first team diagnosed a functional neurological disorder. It is an answer that describes the clinical picture, but provided the patient with no explanation for why he was ill, or what should be done about it.

The second team admitted that they did not know what was wrong, and this allowed the patient and clinical team to discuss the management of uncertainty. To quote the article ‘Although I was no closer to an actual diagnosis, I finally thought that my symptoms were being taken seriously. I felt reassured that a team … was working alongside me during my struggle with an unknown condition, and that … I was no longer facing this uncertainly alone.’

I thought of a young patient that I saw in the last decade, with a similar tale. They had a long and difficult journey with a mysterious illness, many tests and clinics, tears and anger, long waits for investigations, more appointments. The clinical journey was terrible. The amount of resources expended in that time seemed increasingly futile and burdensome. At what point could we have the ‘I don’t know’ conversation? I’m sure the number of referrals and investigations caused psychological harm as well as physical distress.

Eventually, after another second opinion, a consultant and the patient achieved a sense of teamwork. Instead of trying to create a clever label, they agreed that all possible investigations had revealed nothing treatable.

The big learning point from this point of view, and from our own case, is that sharing uncertainty with the patient, whilst acknowledging the severity of symptoms, can be very supportive for the patient. It can also allow for a more realistic approach to finding a path through the uncertainty.

For readers who want to find out more about functional neurological conditions, I recommend ‘It’s all in your head’ by Suzanne O’Sullivan. Written by a neurologist, it explores the difficult area of neurological symptomatology where there is no detectable physical cause.

https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5918 (Published 15 October 2019) is a good partner article, where a doctor shares his experience of using the words ‘I don’t know’.

Published by

Dr Kate

I am a GP in Benbecula, with interests in patient safety, human factors, and data.

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