I get the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) delivered to my home. I know, I know, it is so 1980s to read a journal in paper form (ok, even to read a journal) but I enjoy browsing the most current science and sometimes retain a factoid that later might be useful. I still remember the time I read the Clinical Pathological Conference about a person with confusion and thrombocytopenia (low platelets) where the diagnosis turned out to be thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (very rare) and darn if a person with that exact same presentation didn’t call me about a month later. I, the junior resident, called the hematologist who was at a party and he said something to the effect of “Yeah, right, what do you know…” I elected not to say “I read the New England Journal of Medicine, sir.” Instead I cited all the evidence without mentioning the NEJM article and he agreed with my diagnosis and came in. The patient survived without knowing that her life was saved (or at least the diagnosis was made in a timely fashion) because I got a journal and actually read it.
Many of the diagnoses for those complex cases in the NEJM hinge on an unusual piece of history. Typically, that history is not in the story of the illness (in doctor lingo, the HPI). A fever that starts a week ago is pretty much the same whether it is the flu or malaria. Instead, the clue is in the family or social history. “The patient reports swimming in a waterfall pool in Hawaii” would make me think “leptospirosis” (an infection carried by rats and spread through their urine, typically in large concentrations in the stream above the waterfall…kind of makes you think twice about those movie love scenes, doesn’t it). Part of the job of the health care team is to gather the correct information and synthesize it, keeping the valuable information (swimming in a waterfall pool) and discarding the red herrings (wearing a blue bathing suit). Part of the fun of medicine is to put things together and make a diagnosis so as not to miss a NEJM moment.
Although the details are sketchy, apparently someone in Dallas missed their NEJM moment and is blaming the computer. If you have not heard, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national, got on an airplane feeling well in Monrovia. He then flew to Brussels, Washington DC, and ended up with family in Dallas. When he started to feel ill, he want to the Emergency Room. At the time (5 days before he got really sick) he had some fever, body aches, and in general wasn’t feeling well. This is where the facts become murky but clearly the moment was missed. Even a doctor, half paying attention (“Ok, so any travel? New pets?”) should raised an eyebrow when a person with an accent says “Well, I did just get in from Liberia.” Reading between the lines of the Slate article, the hospital apparently assigned someone to take a history and enter it into the electronic medical record (perhaps to save the clinician time). Thus, “travel to Liberia” was buried in the record.
Doctoring is very expensive and interpreting symptoms is often unrewarding. Of 1000 people with fever, 999 will have something self-limited. This is especially true in America, where many infectious diseases have been eliminated. There is something, however, to be said for inefficiency. Every now and again, what one person thinks is a red herring (just where is Liberia, anyway) another puts into a pattern and prevents an epidemic. Doctors have got to want a NEJM moment enough, though, to pay attention.