Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Spot diagnosis


A week in the emergency department for me, where I get to assess and treat lots of patients, see a large overdose, and make a 'spot diagnosis' on a receptionist who is quizzing me on her disease.

One of the best bits about A&E is patients are meant to be in and out in under 4 hours, meaning that you can see, examine, investigate and treat a lot of patients in each day. I am getting better at writing management plans that are actually accurate now; something I found difficult. I find diagnosing patients and writing management plans very rewarding (if you get it right). For example, last week a 40 year old lady came into the A&E department who
 thought she had a pneumothorax. This is a problem where air gets outside of the actual lungs, but is trapped inside the thorax which surrounds them. This can deflate the lungs and make you breathless. I have put a picture of a chest X-ray below:

This is a chest X ray showing a fully inflated left lung (right of the picture) and a partially deflated right lung. You can see the loss of the normal lung markings, showing that it is just air and not lung across most of the right side. This is a large pneumothorax.

The 40 year old lady was scared that this had recurred, as she had chest pain and felt breathless. As the first person to see her, I started off with observations to make sure she was stable, took a history and did an examination. A pneumothorax will have reduced air sounds over it if listened to with a stethoscope, as there is no lung there. From the history and examination (which showed she was tender over a few ribs too) I guessed that this was 'musculoskeletal pain' - i.e. she had pulled some muscle in her chest, rather than a pneumothorax. To make sure, I ordered a chest X-ray, which I then had to interpret. I thought she was fine, so went to talk to one of the doctors in the emergency department. He listened to the history, had a look at the chest X-ray and just agreed with me, and told me that I should discharge her. Very rewarding to have your opinions 'validated' by someone- hopefully something I can get right more and more often as time goes on!

Other patients who I saw this week included someone who had taken nearly 200 tablets of a mixed variety, mostly diazepam, and had come in after being found unconscious on a park bench (he was quite sick, and my job involved the exciting task of looking through all the empty pill packets, working out what he had taken, how much, and finding out how dangerous each one was on toxbase). Another patient was a 98 year old gentleman who had severe dementia, and had been bought in by the nursing home as he had become 'increasingly confused'. This is called delerium, and there are hundreds of causes for it. As the patient couldn't say anything to me, it was very difficult to work out what it was that was causing it, and I had to order loads of investigations. I don't feel I really got to the bottom of it, as everything I did was negative, but my senior decided that it was probably a pneumonia and discharged on amoxicillin. Not too sure how happy I was with that, as I couldn't see any signs on the chest X-ray, and there was no suggestion of infection from the blood markers, but I couldn't really argue...

Early in one of the mornings, when things tend to be a bit quieter, I was chatting with a receptionist, who asked me if I could diagnose her condition. I asked her for some clues, so she told me to treat her as if she had been bought into A&E unconscious on a stretcher with a low blood pressure, but no other obvious problems. She had a good tan going, so I ventured that "perhaps, because you have this bronze looking skin, you have Addison's disease?". I was right, and she was really impressed. It is mainly because 'hyperpigmented skin' is a typical multiple choice question option for Addison's - and I have just done finals. I felt very smart for the rest of the day, after she had heaped congratulations on me, but also a little smarmy. It is good to get things right, especially for the patients, but if you show off about them you just look like a nob! Fortunately this blog is anonymous, so I can get away with showing off a little bit ;)


  1. Haha, a little bit of self-appreciation is never too bad ;)

  2. i can relate with the feeling rewarded part when your diagnosis gets backed! nice reading your ER experience.

  3. amazing blog! you are a talented doctor and writer :)