What medical mysteries can teach us about getting better health care

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Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

For 15 years, medical reporter Sandra G. Boodman has chased down the most unusual, quirkiest and weirdest medical cases for her monthly Medical Mysteries series. Recent stories have focused on a teenager who couldn’t wake up, a woman wrongly diagnosed with ALS, and an entire family and guest felled by a strange flu-like illness.

I checked in with Sandra to find out more about how she writes the column and the lessons we can learn from it.

Here’s our edited conversation.

Q. How do you choose your ideas?

A: It has to be something I haven’t written about. It has to be a solved case. I need to know the ultimate diagnosis. Even though it’s a solved case, there has to be a mystery. And there has to be a human story.

Q. Once you pick a case, how do you report it?

A: I ask for a chronology of events and medical records that confirm the diagnosis. The medical records and chronology enable me to see whether, indeed, this is a mystery, whether it unfolded in an interesting way. Will this be an interesting case?

Then, I interview the patient, sometimes the parent, sometimes the spouse. The last step is to talk to the doctor who made the diagnosis or the current treating physicians. Any step along the way, the process can fail.

Q. Do you write about unsolved cases?

A. No, it has to be a solved case. A lot of people write to me and say, “I have this problem, can you help me?” Unfortunately, that’s not what I do. I did once write about a lawyer in Detroit who had gone to the undiagnosed-disease program at the National Institutes of Health. He’s seen more than 100 doctors and still doesn’t have an answer. But I thought his case was so unusual and interesting, I did make an exception that time.