This site is intended for health professionals only

A pseudo-symptom of a broken system

A pseudo-symptom of a broken system

Dr Copperfield considers the value of living with diagnostic uncertainty and the perils of too much access to general practice

Recently, during our daily ritual therapeutic highly caffeinated post-surgery catharsis, a colleague of mine made a comment that really shocked me. What she said, with statutory moans, groans and eye-rolls, was this: ‘OMG, I’ve had one of those mornings where I couldn’t make a single diagnosis.’

Incredible! The fact that she thought this was out of the ordinary, I mean. For me, it’s normal. All my surgeries are like that. And it’s definitely not my fault, it’s the patients. They just routinely churn out a litany of ill-defined dizziness, vague tiredness and non-specific feelings of feeling non-specifically ill. Not only is it impossible to work out the diagnosis, sometimes I can’t even work out who the patient is. In fact, some surgeries are so brain scrambling that they end with me being unsure who or where I am, what this job is and, especially, why I’m doing it.

Ring a bell? Don’t worry. Like I say, it’s standard. And if you want evidence rather than anecdote, get a load of this: somewhere between 30% and 75% of primary care presentations defy diagnosis. I’m not just talking about those persistent, perplexing and inevitably over-investigated problems that eventually end up in the diagnostic dustbin labelled ‘Medically Unexplained Symptoms’. I’m referring to the everyday, minor, transient stuff that isn’t clearly a) viral, b) barn-door obvious or c) depression.

So if you’re not feeling utterly bewildered as a GP, you’re not doing it right. And if it grinds you down, you can draw solace from the fact that the Great Symptom Iceberg means that, for every case of ‘There must be a reason why my right nipple buzzes when I lean to the right and urinate’, there are many more who are tolerating their buzzy nipples without bothering us. So count yourself lucky.

Of course, it’s not that simple. You might be aware that the current twin tracks obsessing movers, shakers and policymakers are ‘improving access’ and ‘increasing technology’. 

The problem is, if we accept that there really are a lot of symptoms out there, the vast majority of which are harmless, inexplicable and self-limiting, then there is a very strong argument for keeping these people away from primary care. Otherwise – particularly in the hands of those who are less comfy than the average GP with the concept of ‘uncertainty’ (not just noctors, but mainly) – these people will become patients: they’ll get unnecessarily investigated, referred and treated, and we all know that ends in tears.

Currently, there are organisational barriers that prevent this – reasonable delays for appointments, hassle factors, receptionists and so on. If this protection is undermined by making ‘access’ excess and promoting electronic communication, we will open up a Pandora’s box of quasi-pathology and we – GPs and public – will find ourselves in big trouble. 

Because that tolerated buzzing nipple, and a multitude of other pseudo-symptoms out there of which we are blissfully unaware, suddenly become a whimsical, impetuous, post-pub email to the government-mandated virtual surgery, the ‘sufferer’ is sucked into the system, and that system finally becomes unsustainable.

Currently there are fingers in the dam. Let’s keep them there. Otherwise, there will be a symptom flood, which isn’t great when we’re drowning already. And that post-surgery debrief is going to need something a bit stronger than caffeine.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. Read more of Copperfield’s blogs here



Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

Andrew Jackson 16 September, 2022 12:53 pm

This is so true and I think heightened by the speed we get blood results etc back electronically
Patient presents with a bewildering symptom, Dr does bloods (often with a few days due to the excellent phlebotomy access), results come back electronically next day, Dr feels they need to communicate normal results but the patient hasn’t had time for the symptoms to pass, they get anxious that they have normal bloods and represent with even more health anxiety for further tests.
I tell all my Registrars to slow everything down and not communicate normal results too quick. When we used to get paper results sent back that took ages this happened naturally and we had much less of this.

Patrufini Duffy 16 September, 2022 5:07 pm

Spot on. The NHS cannot define a patient anymore – from the public. It is a free for all drivel of making it up. Clinicians don’t even trust the history they are listening too. Do something just to keep them occupied is a poor state of affairs.
One individual has booked a GP appointment: “I returned from Ibiza and my friends were sooooooo tired and sooooo ill – we don’t know what it was (*well let’s have a guess and start with liquid and inhaled products*) and so was everyone on the aeroplane and I wanted to tell the GP that I think there is something in Ibiza. I just wanted to tell him that it might be something reeeeeaaally serious out there”.
No joke.

James Cuthbertson 20 September, 2022 3:16 pm

My family daily inform me of their various ill feelings. I have often wondered how many times an alarmist non medic would have sought medical attention. They are all still alive BTW

David Church 20 September, 2022 7:35 pm

Oh no, I think my nipples have stopped working.
I have just had several caffeinated drinks so that I could experiment peeing whilst leaning to either side, and I just can’t seem to make either nipple buzz at all.
Do you think it is servious?
Should I book a double appointment with my GP ? (it is both nipples, or maybe neither) ?

David Banner 21 September, 2022 12:06 am

“Access excess”…..brilliant, I’m stealing that one!

Barry Sullman 21 September, 2022 11:11 pm

Dear Copperfield. I really enjoyed your article. It did that very rarest of things – it made me laugh continuously. Really brightened me up. Problem is that everything you said is true! Too much access is going to drown the system. Keep it up!

Christopher Ho 22 September, 2022 11:28 am

Remember – it could be even worse. Bet you guys haven’t even heard of spoonies yet….

“that system finally becomes unsustainable” – It is unsustainable now, and for those with foresight, i.e. economists, it was unsustainable the moment the NHS was dreamt up.