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Instead of Proper Diagnosis, Some Doctors Look to Convince Patients that it’s “All in Your Heads”

By Jack H. FarnbauchMarch 23, 2019

When 7-year-old Bailey Sheehan arrived at a hospital in Oregon partially paralyzed, the doctor that saw her was convinced that the girl was faking her symptoms in order to get her parents' attention because she was jealous of her new baby sister. Bailey’s parents refused to rest on this diagnosis and sought more tests. The doctor was ultimately proved wrong when an MRI showed that Bailey had acute flaccid myelitis or AFM, a polio-like disease that has afflicted hundreds of children since 2014.

In a disturbing new trend, there has been a surge of misdiagnosing physical ailments as psychiatric ones. Though there are no data indicating how frequently this is occurring, experts in the field of diagnosis say they see it all too often. Experts who study the art and science of diagnosis say the problem goes beyond the rare disease of AFM. They say that in general, when presented with a puzzling disease, physicians too often leap to a diagnosis of a psychiatric problem.

Why is this happening? It typically starts when a patient has a perplexing illness and doctors feel a need to come up with a diagnosis. Doctors are not comfortable with not having all the answers and fast.

According to Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of psychiatry at the Duke University of Medicine, the consequences can be "catastrophic” because a misdiagnosis can lead to a patient receiving treatment for a disease they don't have and missing out on treatment for the disease they do have.

"False certainty is much more dangerous than uncertainty," Dr. Frances said.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians declined requests for comment. You can read more here.