My mother-in-law just had a CT scan of her head in the Emergency Department of her local hospital. My husband called me to ask if I could “talk to her about her headache.”
Severe headaches in the elderly are indeed worrisome, and I wondered if she had fallen recently – if she might have a bleed in her brain requiring immediate surgery. Of course, she’d need a CT scan to rule that out… I was prepared for the worst. But what I learned by simply talking to Mrs. Zlotkus was unexpectedly revealing – not only about her diagnosis but about our healthcare system in general.
As it turns out, Mrs. Zlotkus had been having severe headaches for about 3 months. She was taking Vicodin daily to “take the edge off.” When I asked her about the location of the pain, she said that it was “just on one side of my head, from the top of my neck to the top of my head.” I asked her if the pain sometimes traveled to the other side, or if it involved her eye. “Never,” was her quick response. She also told me that she’d been seeing a physical therapist for 2.5 months for neck stretching exercises.
Mrs. Zlotkus told me her CT scan was negative, and that her blood tests didn’t show any “temporary arthritis.” (That’s temporal arteritis, I presume.)
“Well,” I said, “There’s only one thing left that I can think of that will give you a headache in the exact area you’re describing – and that’s shingles. Did you notice any scabs or painful bumps on your scalp when the headaches first started?”
“Why, yes!” Said Mrs. Zlotkus. “About 3 months ago I noticed some very painful, crusty scabs on my scalp. I thought for sure it was because my hairdresser used extra strong chemicals on my hair. I scolded her for it. She told me to put tea tree oil on it.”
Oh, boy. There it was – a diagnosis as plain as the nose on her face.
“Um… Well did you tell the ER docs about the scabs?”
“No. They never asked me about it and I didn’t see what my hairdresser’s chemical burn had to do with my severe headaches.”
My mother-in-law’s work up (ER visit, CT scan, several doctor visits, pain medicines), misdiagnosis (neck muscle stiffness), and mistreatment (physical therapy) for shingles probably cost upwards of $10,000. Worse than that, she did not get anti-viral treatment early enough in her outbreak to prevent a long-lasting pain syndrome (called post-herpetic neuralgia). Now that she has this shingles-related headache, it’s very hard to treat. And taking lots of acetaminophen-rich medications (Vicodin) is the last thing her liver needs right now.
So how did the healthcare system fail Mrs. Zlotkus? In my opinion, this is a great example of the “failure of synthesis” that Evan Falchuk discusses on his See First blog. Somehow, the physicians involved in Mrs. Zlotkus’ care didn’t take the time to think about her symptoms, to ask the right questions, and to put all the puzzle pieces together. Instead, they just ruled out the potential emergency issues (a stroke/hemorrhage, or temporal arteritis) and gave her a follow up appointment with a neurologist (who couldn’t fit her in their schedule for 2 months). They didn’t take a full history – they just dumped her in the most likely diagnostic category (neck stiffness) and let some other specialist follow up. Shameful.
I’ve described more egregious examples of hasty medical care on this blog – consider the case of an elderly woman (the mother of a friend of mine) who was misdiagnosed with “end stage dementia” when she really had acute delirium from an overdose of diuretics… Or the case of my girlfriend who was mistaken in the ER for a drug seeker when she was suffering from a kidney stone.
Sometimes I feel as if I have to keep an eye on all my friends and family before they set foot in a hospital, ER, or doctor’s office. I’m afraid that those providing their care will be so rushed and thoughtless that my loved ones will wind up with a huge bill, the wrong diagnosis, and perhaps even a near-death experience. I am seriously afraid for them.
The bottom line is that we have to stop rewarding providers for volume over quality. We have to value the history and physical exam beyond the CT scan and lab tests. We have to give doctors the chance to think about their patients – rather than turn up the speed dial on the clinical treadmills as a means to reduce costs.
My mother-in-law just spent $10,000 of our tax dollars on a diagnosis that could be made in 5 minutes of thoughtful questioning over the telephone. Multiply that cost by the number of other Medicare beneficiaries who are suffering similar misdiagnoses in this country and we’re talking serious money.
Under-thinking leads to over-testing. Has the CBO taken that into consideration in its scoring of various reform plans? I don’t think so. To me, this is yet another reason why we need physicians at the table in healthcare reform – we see the real cost drivers that others might not think of – even if some of us are too busy to diagnose shingles correctly!