I don’t know about other physicians/healthcare providers, but there are certain words that I see on patient’s medical chart that strike fear in my heart. Here is a sample list:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Atypical Chest Pain
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Chronic Pelvic Pain
These illnesses fall into a category known as “Functional Disorders”, which means, according to the medical dictionary, that it is a disorder with no known or detectable anatomical or physiological basis to explain the symptoms.
It is not uncommon for patients who have functional disorders to go from doctor to doctor, getting different opinions, blood draws, imaging studies, and end up with no clear answer. In my experience, I find that the patients who carry these diagnoses in their charts often tend to be unhappy/frustrated with the lack of an answer from their extensive medical evaluations. This subsequently leads to more negative/poor quality interactions with their medical team.
The question is, once that label of a functional disorder is officially put onto the patient’s problem list, does it immediately cause some bias in how someone is treated? I’ll be the first to confess that yes, it does affect the way that I think about a person. The apprehension that I experience is directly related to the limitations in medical diagnosis/treatment. So when I see a patient with one of these “labels”, I can’t help but cringe a little bit inside, even if I have never ever met the person before.
On the other hand, maybe having a label for an illness can be more liberating for a patient. Perhaps it gives the patient a sense of validation, even if there are limited treatment options. It is someone saying, “Yes, you are experiencing this pain and discomfort. I don’t know what causes it, but let’s move on and try to focus on the things that make you better.”
I know that for myself, if I were to ever be in the situation where I had some mysterious inexplicable symptoms, I would hate to be labeled with a functional disorder for fear of others viewing me in a certain way. Sometimes I wonder, is it better to be officially labeled with a functional disorder or to go on through life endlessly searching for a physiologic reason or structural abnormality and being told that there’s “nothing wrong and it’s all in your head”?