The achilles heel of liaison psychiatry

Stephen Ralph DCR(D) Retired.

30th March 2013

Hello there,

In recent years I have been considering the reliability of the whole “CFS/ME” diagnostic process.

From personal experience I have encountered numerous doctors who failed to possess the detailed specialist knowledge they needed to make a diagnosis of Behçet’s disease at both GP and specialist level.

From personal experience I have learned that standard blood tests or even CT/MRI scans or indeed other diagnostic tests such as endoscopy can and do fail to detect a complex clinical disease present in a patient.

I have no doubt that there is a diagnostic black hole between the insufficient knowledge of the doctor and pathologies that are not detectable by the basic tests they choose to request which produce negative results they then choose to rely on.

The diagnoses of “CFS/ME” and now Somatic Symptom Disorder have in my view been deployed by liaison psychiatry to exploit that black hole.

Once a diagnosis has been made, that diagnosis is presumed to be accurate by subsequent doctors but in reality there is no standard of diagnosis from one doctor to another which means that the whole diagnostic system – especially for complex clinical presentations – is a total lottery.

The system to challenge a given diagnosis has not been changed in decades.

In the UK a patient has a right to ask for a 2nd opinion but there is no guarantee that the doctor who gives a 2nd opinion will have sufficient knowledge to correctly assess a complex clinical presentation where the usual round of simple tests come back negative.

And, having been given a first opinion of “CFS/ME”; the doctor who considers that patient for a 2nd opinion already has a subjective view of what could be wrong with that patient because they have been re-referred by a GP who will give a medical history that may lean towards a CFS/ME diagnosis because the GP has insufficient knowledge to write an accurate 2nd opinion referral listing all the relevant symptoms that could add up to a rare disease such as Behçet’s disease.

In my own case as an example, my GP had no appreciation that my episode of Epididymitis was relevant to a possible case of Behçet’s and so this issue was not referred to when I was sent to another out of area doctor who formed that 2nd opinion.

With regards to “CFS/ME” a GP or a psychiatrist or a general rheumatologist will give the patient a diagnosis based upon the repeated reporting of a set of “invisible” symptoms over a period of months.

At present, “invisible” symptoms are being ascribed as “medically unexplained” or as a sign of somatisation.

The doctors who make these diagnoses are not specialists in rare and complex diseases such as Behçet’s disease where there is a significant crossover of “invisible” symptoms.

In the case of Behçet’s disease the bulk of Behçet’s research is focused upon those who show all the physical signs yet the majority of those who have Behçet’s do not have to show those physical signs and indeed patients with Behçet’s may show few or no visible symptoms at an outpatient examination.

There is in fact a research black hole representing the majority of Behçet’s patients who do not have all the obvious signs of the disease which in turn misinforms those who rely upon such research to inform them about other potential cases.

In short, the diagnostic system presently in place is stacked heavily against the patient.

Having thought about this for a considerable period of time I have come to the conclusion that the pyramid built by liaison psychiatry that fuels their involvement in “CFS/ME” revolves around a simple foundation assumption that a “CFS/ME” diagnosis handed to a patient must be the correct diagnosis.

If a GP or a psychiatrist carries out tests in conjunction with an immunologist or a rheumatologist; a set of negative test results is all that GP/psychiatrist/rheumatologist needs to give a “CFS/ME” diagnosis.

If that diagnosis has been handed to a patient by doctors who have little or no knowledge of complex sero-negative clinical presentations relating to rare medical diseases then there is a significant risk that the diagnosis he or she is giving their patient is in fact the wrong diagnosis.

As people reading this will know, I was subjected to a medical misdiagnosis by a number of doctor’s including GP’s and specialists.

The number of doctors involved went into double figures over a period of 12 years in total.

Over that period, my many individual symptoms were wrongly ascribed to conditions other than Behçet’s disease but in the end when all those symptoms were put together and compared to the correct diagnostic criteria for Behçet’s disease; a doctor finally looked at the evidence and came to the conclusion that I had been misdiagnosed and that I did in fact have Behçet’s disease.

In recent months I have asked pretty well all the liaison psychiatrists in the UK if they have encountered cases of Behçet’s disease passing through their out-patient clinics and none of them has replied that they had.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely for example told me that he was no Behçet’s specialist and that he would have to phone a colleague who was. Professor Wessely did not know if he had seen cases of Behçet’s pass through his clinic wrongly diagnosed as “CFS/ME”.

I recently e.mailed Professor Wessely to ask him about the outcome of his enquiries that were aided by one of his medical students but in spite of a rapid reply to my previous sequence of e.mails; Professor Sir Simon Wessely has not replied to my query regarding his findings.

I sincerely believe that I have homed in upon the Achilles heel of liaison psychiatry and their dominance of “medically unexplained” CFS/ME or indeed their latest diagnosis of Somatic Symptom Disorder.

It is my view from the evidence that liaison psychiatry; by providing doctors with the diagnostic option of CFS/ME and SSD have been responsible for the dumbing down of the clinical diagnostic process within our NHS and indeed around the world.

It is my view from the evidence that liaison psychiatry has made the potential for medical misdiagnosis acceptable practice within the medical profession as a whole.

Instead of considering rare sero-negative auto-immune disease explanations for cases of what end up as CFS/ME, a doctor now has an easy pathway to give a benign diagnosis of CFS/ME on the grounds that their set of negative test results together with a certain set of “invisible” symptoms means that the condition they are looking at is “medically unexplained” or an example of somatised symptom disorder.

Once medically misdiagnosed, the patient is disqualified from being in receipt of medications and therapies that would have been prescribed had that patient been correctly diagnosed in the first instance.

Disqualification of access to treatment will lead to that patient suffering considerably yet the doctors concerned will not recognise the severity of that patients suffering because that suffering will be put into the wrong context by that medical misdiagnosis.

I have known a case of Behçet’s disease where a patient was wrongly diagnosed as having “CFS/ME” for more than a decade and only had that misdiagnosis overturned when they suffered ocular micro-embolisms that caused permanent blindness in one eye and partial blindness in the other eye.

Away from Behçet’s we know of patients who suffered “diagnostic overshadowing”  that lead to the late diagnosis of cancer and a rare heart condition.

The symptoms of cancer and the complex heart pathology were fatal in both situations and in both examples, the symptoms of neurological cancer and the heart pathology were almost certainly wrongly ascribed to the “invisible” symptoms of “CFS/ME”.

As far as the medical profession is concerned, a medical misdiagnosis or a medically missed diagnosis are considered as being “unfortunate”.

For the patient, a medical misdiagnosis or a medically missed diagnosis have profound and serious consequences and outcomes.

None of the doctors involved in making or perpetuating a medical misdiagnosis are subsequently held to account for what they have done to those patients.

In my own case, once I had been re-diagnosed I was treated as though I had simply failed back to the bottom of the pack.

There was no process of clinical education in that no investigation took place and no doctor involved was alerted to their poor clinical opinions that lead to me being medically misdiagnosed.

In short, it is my view that the clinical diagnostic process is in fact seriously flawed.

Patient’s are at risk from the medical profession at GP and specialist level.

In particular patients are at risk from an insufficient level of expertise used to make a complex diagnosis based on negative test results and a history of “invisible” physical symptoms.

Patients who present with a history of “invisible” symptoms and a set of negative routine test results are no longer referred to a super-specialist for the objective consideration of a set of relatively rare sero-negative medical diseases.

Instead, patients are given a benign diagnosis of “CFS/ME”; a diagnosis that by virtue of its own “somatisation” description – created by liaison psychiatry - is then incredibly hard or indeed impossible to overcome.

The present system seriously needs to be challenged and changed so that the patient has a fairer chance of being correctly diagnosed in the first instance and not medically misdiagnosed by inadequately qualified members of the medical profession.

The question is – how do we go about making a powerful effective challenge that effects such a change?

If we do nothing then nothing will change.

The medical profession have proven themselves happy to maintain the status quo.

As far as liaison psychiatry is concerned, it is imperative that the present system of a flawed diagnostic process stays exactly the same as it is today.

As far as immunology or rheumatology are concerned, they surely do not want their out-patient departments packed with patients who have discovered that they have been medically misdiagnosed.

A flawed diagnostic process fuels the creation of a base of “heterogeneous” patients who are subsequently involved in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Graded Exercise Therapy (GET).

Those diagnosed as having “CFS/ME” are fodder for the exclusive “closed shop” self reinforcing research carried out by liaison psychiatry and no other parts of the medical profession.

One could argue that a totally unknown number of patients who are presently medically misdiagnosed with “CFS/ME” are in fact adding credence to the views of liaison psychiatry because a misdiagnosed patient will have a set of self perpetuating and untreated disabling symptoms (fueled by an unrecognised disease process) that the patient is unable to “cast off” or rid themselves of from a course of CBT or GET.

Those patients will reliably keep on reporting “somatised” “invisible” symptoms not because they have any mental impairment but because an auto-immune disease is producing those symptoms.

Such an unknown number of medically misdiagnosed patients can be accused by liaison psychiatry of being so neurotic or so somatised that they are unable to be “cured” by CBT.

Such misdiagnosed patients will be readily available year upon year for future “peer reviewed” research studies that go to reinforcing the validity of Somatised Symptom Disorder or “CFS/ME” using medically misdiagnosed patients to helpfully legitimise those artificial mental health labels.

Such misdiagnosed patients become – in the eyes of liaison psychiatry – desperately in need of even more psychiatric interventions and their sincere professional “help”.

Such patients become so firmly shunted into the somatisation cul-de-sac that they may never have their real diagnosis established unless they suffer a loss of sight or a pulmonary embolism or another “visible” crisis event such as a brain tumour or a fatal heart condition.

However, a pyramid can be reduced to rubble if the foundations are seen and recognised to be rotten.

Once it is realised that the pyramid is built on rotten foundations then when those foundations are condemned and removed, that pyramid will be reduced to rubble.


Stephen Ralph DCR(D) Retired (diagnostic radiography)

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