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Help for Hard to Diagnose Health Issues

old man sitting on side of hospital bed speaking to doctorIt’s not fun to feel sick. And it can really interfere with your life. But it’s really maddening when no one can figure out what’s wrong with you. You trudge from doctor to doctor, often undergoing many tests. You might be incorrectly diagnosed. As a result, you might undergo various treatments that don’t help. Or your doctor might tell you that you have emotional problems that have caused your physical symptoms. Meanwhile, you are suffering. Moreover, you’re getting anxious that no one will ever figure out what is happening to you. How can you get help with hard to diagnose health issues? What if you have a rare disorder that your doctors are not familiar with? Read on to learn about options if you and your doctors are struggling to figure out what’s wrong with you or a loved one.

Rare disorders impact millions.

Approximately 25 million Americans cope with rare disorders. Unfortunately, these folks often go for long periods, sometimes years, without a proper diagnosis.

It happened to me.

For over 3 months, when I was in my mid-20s, I was so dizzy I couldn’t walk without holding on to a wall. I had to take medical leave from work. My parents generously stepped in to help take care of me and my infant son. I was in bad shape.

My primary care doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I went to multiple specialists, underwent a slew of tests, still nothing. One well respected specialist at a top hospital told me that depression was causing my dizziness. Yes, I was depressed. I had been bedridden with dizziness for 3 months! But I wasn’t depressed when it started. Then my primary care doctor dismissed me – claiming he couldn’t help me. Just like that, I no longer had a primary care doctor. Finally, I went to my uncle who was a fabulous diagnostician. He figured out my issues, recommended treatments and I quickly started to feel better. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if my uncle had not come to my rescue.

Undiagnosed Disease Network helps with the tough cases.

doctor looking at imagesThe Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN) is a federally funded project created to help patients with difficult to diagnose ailments. UDN is a research study conducted in medical and research centers across the US. Their goal is to improve the diagnosis and care of patients with undiagnosed diseases while advancing the understanding of how the human body works.

The participating centers use a cross-disciplinary approach to diagnose rare and undiagnosed conditions. Since these cases are challenging, researchers in the network pursue every possible clue to figure out what is wrong with each patient, using information obtained from genetics, imaging, biochemistry, and clinical exams.

Where are the clinical centers?

There are 12 clinical centers in the US:

  • Bethesda, MD – NIH Undiagnosed Diseases Program
  • Boston, MA – UDN Clinical Site at Harvard Medical School
  • Durham, NC – Duke University and Columbia University
  • Houston, TX – Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Baylor CHI St. Luke’s Medical Center
  • Los Angeles, CA – UCLA Undiagnosed Diseases Clinic
  • Miami, FL – University of Miami School of Medicine
  • Nashville, TN – Vanderbilt Center for Undiagnosed Diseases
  • Philadelphia, PA – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania
  • Salt Lake City, UT – University of Utah – Intermountain West
  • Seattle, WA – Pacific Northwest Undiagnosed Diseases Clinical Site at University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital
  • Stanford, CA – Center for Undiagnosed Diseases at Stanford
  • St. Louis, MO – Washington University in St. Louis

How can you participate in the study?

One must apply for acceptance into this study and not all patients are eligible to participate. If you would like to participate, discuss this with your doctor, who must write a study recommendation letter on your behalf. The application along with information regarding materials needed and directions for applying are available on their website. If you have questions, you can visit their FAQ section, call them at 844-746-4836 (9am – 5pm ET, Monday – Friday) or email them at UDN@hms.harvard.edu.

As a result of their strict guidelines, you might not be accepted. They only accept about 40% of patients who apply, all of whom had been referred by their doctor. So, plan your expectations accordingly.

How much does it cost to participate?

UDN aims to minimize patients’ expenses as much as possible. If you are accepted into the program, you can discuss possible out-of-pocket expenses with UDN.

Will UDN figure out what is wrong with you or your loved one?

Maybe. According to the UDN website, out of 974 patients who they evaluated, they were able to diagnose 260 so far, or almost 27%. Since these patients have conditions that are very difficult to diagnose, 27% is meaningful.

If UDN researchers reach a diagnosis, they generally will not provide treatment. Your own healthcare provider will provide treatment, but UDN may provide treatment recommendations.

A few patient examples.

A New York Times article highlights 3 patients who participated in the UDN program. Because these stories are so interesting, I encourage you to read them.

What if you can’t get into the UDN study?

First of all, don’t give up if you can’t participate in the UDN study. America is full of dedicated, smart doctors who want to help you. While it might take many tries to find the right doctor, or team of doctors, it’s worth the effort. Consider going to a highly regarded hospital such as Mayo ClinicCleveland Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital, even if you have to travel.

Additionally, you might find help through the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). And visit the Zaggo Resource Center for information on other organizations that provide information and/or help.

Finally, read these blog posts for more information on diagnoses:

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