Health and Psychology

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Medical Psychology

Posted by Margaret Donohue on May 3, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Depending on the study, somewhere between 58 and 79 percent of all psychological diagnoses have a substantial medical component.  That's a very alarming statistic.  In the 1970's the field of medical psychology was created to address this need.  By the late 1980's it had all but dissappeared, replaced by the less medically intense health psychology field or the broader behavioral medicine field.  


When I first went into practice I worked with a family practice physician.  My office was located in his office.  The referral question was simple: "This person has been seeing me (the MD) for 4 or more visits and the diagnosis is unclear" or "This person is not responding to treatment."  Of the hundred or so people I saw over the first year, I diagnosed about 30 cases of cancer, 20 cases of heart disease, and 35 cases of endocrine disorders.  The rest were a mixture of psychological conditions and non-compliance with complicated medical treatment.  My private practice geared to work with heart disease and cancer was starting to be filled by men with what would eventually be diagnosed as HIV/AIDS.  I drove to San Francisco on the weekends to be with a client who was being treated at San Francisco General.  I stopped counting the deaths at 175 and closed my practice to start working for one of the insurance companies.  


At a risk management seminar I was sitting at a table of physicians.  They presented a case of a woman with persistent neck pain.  The cardiologist at the table and I were arguing over the diagnosis. The case was presented in pieces, just like it is in a medical office.  She had been cleaning the shower and her neck started hurting.  It felt better after some rest but still didn't go away.  She thought maybe she had the flu.   I was telling the cardiologist the woman had a heart attack.  He was telling me I wasn't a doctor.  After the third visit for neck adjustment the woman collapsed at home.  She'd had three heart attacks.  I explained to the cardiologist that women experience heart attacks differently than men and they have different symptoms mainly neck and jaw pain, fatigue and muscle aches.  Almost all my heart patients were women.  Almost all were misdiagnosed in medical offices or even at emergency rooms.


The endocrine diagnoses were worse.  Almost all my endocrine patients were misdiagnosed with depression, anxiety, or personality disorders.  Some had endocrine tumors.  Some of those tumors were malignant.  Just trying to get the correct tests done or imaging studies done was challenging.  Eventually I had physicians I worked with because we knew each other, and they understood what I did.  For physicians not trained in clinical medicine, they decided I was psychic.  For physicians trained in clinical medicine, they honed their skills and trusted them more than the lab studies they treated like oracles.  


Now I tend to work with more neurological symptoms, recent head injury or abnormal test results that don't seem to correlate with any illness.  When the Dr. House series was on television it was easier to explain what I did.  That was a show about clinical medicine.  I like the puzzle.  I like figuring out what's going on.


If you don't have a diagnosis and have seen your physician for more than 4 visists, or if you aren't responding to treatment, contact me.  I'm likely to be able to help with diagnosis and treatment.

Categories: General Psychology, Health Psychology, Diagnosis

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