Chronic Fatigue Patients Often Feel Disbelieved in ERs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) often feel disrespected and disbelieved in hospital emergency rooms, according to a new survey by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center.

CFS is a complex and poorly understood disorder characterized by extreme fatigue, chronic pain, impaired memory and insomnia. Because many of the symptoms of CFS overlap with other conditions -- including fibromyalgia, depression, and inflammation – a correct diagnosis is often difficult.

In the first study of its kind, Georgetown researchers surveyed 282 CFS patients about their experiences in emergency departments. Two-thirds said they would not go to an ED because they believed they wouldn't be taken seriously or because they had a previous unsatisfactory experience. Only a third said they received appropriate treatment in the ED.

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"The high proportion of patients who were basically told 'It is all in your head' by ED staff indicates that there is much misunderstanding and misgivings about the diagnosis of CFS,” said allergist and immunologist James Baraniuk, MD, senior investigator of the study published in the journal Open Access Emergency Medicine.

“These patients should feel they are respected and that they can receive thorough care when they feel sick enough to go to an ED."

The survey found that only 59 percent of the CFS patients had gone to an ED. In that group, 42 percent were dismissed as having psychosomatic complaints. Asked to collectively rate their ED caregivers' knowledge of chronic fatigue, patients gave them a score of 3.6 on a 10-point scale.

Baraniuk says more training is needed for ED staff and physicians to better understand the disorder.

"An already-available CFS Symptom Severity Questionnaire can be used in the ED to assist with the diagnosis of CFS, and to differentiate exacerbations of CFS symptoms from medical emergencies such as heart attacks or infections," Baraniuk says.

The number one reason for going to the ED was orthostatic intolerance, which occurs when a person feels faint when standing or sitting upright because not enough blood is reaching the brain and heart. The symptoms only improve when a person lies down.

"This condition is something that can be readily addressed by ED caregivers. There is a real need for physician education that will improve their efficiency in identifying and treating CFS and in distinguishing CFS symptoms from other diseases in the exam room," he said.

In 2015, an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health called for major changes in the way the healthcare system treats people suffering from chronic fatigue – which is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

“Both society and the medical profession have contributed to ME/CFS patients feeling disrespected and rejected. They are often treated with skepticism, uncertainty, and apprehension and labeled as deconditioned or having a primary psychological disorder,” the panel reported in its final report.

About one million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue, most of them women. There are no pathogens linked to CFS, no diagnostic tests and no known cures.