Keep an Eye Out for Factitious Disorders


Among the challenging psychiatric conditions hospitalists encounter are factitious disorders in which patients fabricate symptoms to draw attention, elicit empathy, and intentionally take on a sick role.

For example, at the University of Chicago, a patient in her 30s complained of blood in her urine, stool, and vomit. The staff performed an extensive evaluation, including laboratory analyses and upper and lower gastrointestinal endoscopies, but they found no source of the alleged bleeding, says Gregory Ruhnke, MD, MS, MPH, assistant professor in the section of hospital medicine at the university’s Pritzker School of Medicine.

After lengthy discussions with several nurses and direct observation, caregivers became suspicious, in part, because the patient was ordering predominantly red food and drinks, such as Jell-O and cranberry juice. She emptied them into a basin and claimed to have vomited blood, Dr. Ruhnke says. Lab results confirmed the absence of any blood.

In this instance, the patient’s objective was “to stay in the hospital,” says Marie Tobin, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and consult-liaison psychiatrist at the University of Chicago. “That’s the goal—to be taken care of as a patient.”

The staff later learned that the patient had engaged in similar tactics at other hospitals. When physicians wanted to obtain medical records from those facilities, the patient declined to grant permission.

“We do have to respect the patient’s confidentiality,” Dr. Tobin says. “If they refuse, we really can’t [obtain their records].”

Aside from previous records, “room searches can help confirm suspicions,” Dr. Ruhnke says. Security personnel should conduct a room search when necessary. This preserves the patient’s therapeutic rapport with healthcare providers. A search could uncover knives or needles, which a patient could use to inflict harm. More important, room searches can resolve inconsistencies and help hospitalists avoid ordering unjustified tests and procedures.

“It’s not a pleasant situation, but it is for safety,” Dr. Tobin says of investigations.

“These are people who can be at high risk to themselves.” TH

Susan Kreimer is a freelance writer in New York.

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