We will use “school and/or behavioral problems” as our chief complaint. Notice we intentionally keep the definition broad to avoid over-focusing on one cause resulting in missing other correct diagnoses.
After seeing 5 or 6 children with fevers caused by throat swab positive strep I might be tempted to conclude that all the children with fevers I will see today will have strep and that it would obviously save time, effort, expense and pain to skip my three-step (history, physical, and lab) diagnostic process and simply start giving penicillin to everyone. It is even easier to make this jump because we have a wonderfully effective treatment for strep and are looking for opportunities to apply it. When one has a hammer everything begins to look like a nail. But this approach would result in over-treating the majority of children with simple viral illness and, much more seriously, missing the rare but potentially treatable case of meningitis or septicemia.
The most effective way for me to proceed is to define the problem at my best level of understanding. When I enter the room with my chart in hand describing an 8 year old with a high fever of sudden onset, who I find is crying with a sore throat and lying very still on the exam table, I am already leaning towards the diagnosis of strep while trying to keep an open mind about other realistic possibilities. All medical students are taught to develop a “differential diagnosis” to consider all the potential reasons for their patient’s symptoms. This analogy to shifting gears is helpful in reminding us to drive ahead logically towards our diagnosis based on what we know or don’t know. Often the facts that do not seem to fit correctly in our diagnosis might be crucial to lead us in the right direction. We must guard against our natural tendency to sweep contradicting facts under the carpet when they do not fit into our system of understanding. We are all guilty of that at some point.
We now need to further clarify the initial chief complaint by asking the parents and child (and eventually the teacher) for more specifics. The parents have already written on my history form the reason they have scheduled an appointment and the results they hope to achieve. Most often they are looking for improving for their child is grades and behaviors but also for reducing the frustration they feel in not being able to help their child. When a child has an illness, particularly one in which the cause is unclear, the parents automatically assume it is their fault. In the case of strep they are sure the infection was caused by letting the child go outside without a coat, forgetting their vitamins or allowing them stay up to watch a special movie. Often there are other relatives (mother-in-laws or ex-spouses) who are quick to step in and agree with the parent’s self-assessment of blame. In reality the source of strep is most often the classmate the child sits next to not mother (or father) failure. Similar family dynamics are associated with school problems where feelings of guilt are added to long-standing confusion and aggravation.
The lists of chief complaints that I see include: failing to stay in a seat, not finishing school work, forgetting to hand in assignments, impulsive actions, irritability, emotional labiality, poor social skills (no friends), deteriorating relationships with parents or siblings, falling grades and lack of self-esteem. Although it is discouraging to contemplate such a list, facing and describing the situation is the first shaky step towards correcting the problem. The treatment phase will require transforming these concerns into goals which can then lead to a successful outcome.
We will need to review how to obtain accurate and complete information (history) in a timely and efficient fashion. This is the ultimate goal of every medical encounter. Next time we will begin with the four characteristics of the behaviors we must gather from our history that are essential for establishing the diagnosis for ADHD and other coexisting conditions.