Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

“Deaf” Physicians’ Failure to Listen to Seriously Ill Patients

Women patients are placed in extreme risk when physicians attribute their symptoms to anxiety or stress and nothing more but children are at risk, too.

Too often, women’s medical concerns face a healthcare bias; lack of belief. When this happens, as in a recent case of ovarian cancer, the final diagnosis may be bleak and too late for successful interventions. In the current case, the woman is receiving treatment and it is believed cancer didn’t spread.

This most recent, alarming case, outlined in a major newspaper article, was of a young woman who sought medical care and an accurate diagnosis from 10 physicians over three years. All of them attributed her symptoms to various non-life-threatening disorders that didn’t require a sufficient degree of care.

Most physicians told her it was stress and she should modify her lifestyle. One physician suggested she needed to lose weight, which was the cause of her many symptoms.

Finally, in excruciating pain, she went to a hospital emergency room. The diagnosis and treatment? Ovarian cancer and the removal of a tumor weighing over four lbs. was extracted from her stomach. How did they miss this, and why was she told it was stress, weight, and lifestyle? Obviously, she is not alone in this failure to listen and diagnose a deadly illness.

Aren’t there tests for ovarian cancer? I recall over 20 years ago being asked to write an article for an oncologist at a prestigious hospital (it would be published under his name) for CA-125. I have no idea if he had it published. But the problem is not limited to cancer or ovarian cancer, specifically.

We know that heart attacks in women are a major concern in healthcare. The reason? Women’s symptoms aren’t classic as they are in men. When women reveal their physical distress, it may be viewed as the oh, so biased diagnosis of anxiety.

It’s the same old song; gender bias in medicine. And it has been receiving more attention as physicians publish opinion articles. The “good little girl syndrome” is at work once again. In medicine, it’s exhibited when women feel intimidated in a power situation where they aren’t on equal footing.

The topic isn’t how to deal with medical anxiety but how to appropriately handle medical situations that may entail life and death questions. No longer should we be viewing medical personnel, as Alec Baldwin said in the film, “Malice.”

When questioned in the film about his role as a surgeon in the operating room, Baldwin says, “I am God” in the operating room. Currently, the god aspect of medicine has been addressed and, hopefully, changing with new medical personnel. Bringing attention to this dangerous self-concept should also emphasize attention to diagnosis and inherent bias.

A reversal of communication problems also can be seen when parents with sick children are believed when they should be viewed askance. In some instances, these individuals depend on deceiving medical personnel in diagnosis. When destructive, possibly psychopathic caregivers are in charge, the result may be to circumvent child advocacy, as in the case of Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (MSP).

A recent case made national headlines when a young seven-year-old girl was viewed as suffering from a mysterious, untreatable, and deadly ailment. One of the things she wished for came from the Make a Wish Foundation that granted it.

The little girl’s tragic journey began when she was two-year-old, and her mother took her for treatment. Here, the mother was believed each time, and repeated surgeries were performed. Ultimately, the mother signed her daughter into hospice and requested a DNR form.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from various charities and Medicare for medical treatments were provided to the mother. According to the symptoms of MSP, the goal is for the guardian/parent to receive attention and be lauded for their continued care for the child. I wrote on MSP in an article for Postgraduate Medicine. The article resulted in my decade of TV appearances.

Although usually limited to children, MSP is also found in men seeking medical care for their wives. The research, however, thus far concentrates on women since they are the main care providers for children and children appear to be the prevalent victims.

Often, the caregiver has a medical background of some type or is knowledgeable about medical procedures and diagnoses. Rather than seek care at one hospital, they may circulate to several, knowing there would be no medical records shared by all of them. The loophole creates an opportunity for deceit and death.

Fortunately, someone blew the whistle as this mother proceeded to take another daughter for “treatment” of a curious ailment. An investigation by a county sheriff’s office led to the mother’s arrest after the death of the first child. Caught, the mother entered a guilty plea resulting in her being sentenced to 16 years in jail. The child’s step-father sued one of the hospitals that provided care for the girl and did receive an award.

Licensing authorities for many professions, including medicine, mental health, barbers, hairdressers, and others, require continuing education to aid in reporting abuse of adults, children, and the elderly and making accurate diagnoses. Training to address bias is also mandatory, but not everywhere.

If I were to suggest a film on caregiving and legal abuse, I’d recommend “I Care a Lot.” It is not a comedy.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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