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Why Do Physicians Conduct Complete Physical Exams When You Have A Localized Complaint?

One June 20, 2011, NPR aired a great story about how a person may not “see” a person getting beat up on the side of a jogging path when they are focused on a task (pursuing another jogger)… even if they pass RIGHT BY THE FIGHT!!!

In fact, only a third of the subjects reported seeing this mock fight when the experiment was conducted at night. Even more surprisingly, broad daylight didn’t improve the statistics (only 40% noticed the fight).

Though the situation and circumstances do not exactly correspond, there is a lesson to be learned here that applies to a medical visit.

As an ENT, I often see patients for a very specific complaint…

“My right ear hurts.”
“I have a bad cough.”

No matter what the complaint, unless it is for a specific task (there is earwax… can you remove it), I most always still do a complete ear, nose, and throat exam no matter the complaint.


Because often the symptoms are “the jogger” in the example above which is noticed to all exclusion when “the fight” is the more important event that should have been noticed.

Let’s go to the examples stated above…

“My right ear hurts.”

Though a patient may wonder why the heck I look in the mouth when their ear is the main complaint, it’s mainly because there are other things that can cause ear pain… some of it life-threatening.

Tonsil cancer can cause ear pain (without any other symptoms) as well as a base of tongue abscess. Obviously, giving antibiotics to treat the right ear pain totally misses the fact that there was tonsil cancer that got missed or the tongue abscess which requires an emergency trip to the operating room followed by a few days in the intensive care unit.

“I have a bad cough.”

This statement is pretty self-explanatory. Why bother looking in the ears??? A loose hair in the ear canal can cause a persistent dry cough. Why look in the nose if the cough is coming from the throat? Severe allergies and nasal polyps can lead to post-nasal drainage leading to a chronic cough. Why would an ENT than ask about my blood pressure medications? Because ACE inhibitors like lisinopril cause a chronic dry cough as a side effect.

The point being with these examples is that medical doctors are trained to not just focus in the exact symptom the patient is complaining of, but the entire picture. It doesn’t do the patient any good if a doctor gets tunnel-visioned to the point where they don’t notice what may be a very obvious thyroid mass or the large nasal polyp.

SO… next time you see a doctor for a specific complaint, humor us, and answer fully all questions about your medical history, surgical history, medications you are taking, and the physical exam we will perform on you… even if you are there for just a “simple” earache.

Read the NPR story here and the police beating that triggered this inattention experiment.

*This blog post was originally published at Fauquier ENT Blog*

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