Law & Medicine

Not All Stool Discussions Are Unproductive

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Regarding stool—we have all had discussions with patients regarding hypervigilant concerns about stool color. We know there are some big things to look for with stool color (eg, black tarry reveals upper GI bleeding, while clay-colored or pale may reveal the absence of bile). Yet, patients’ expectations of the color-coded diagnostic abilities of their stool knows no bounds. Patients are convinced that we have some color wheel in our jacket pocket corresponding to stool color—and that the nuances between shades have important medical implications. If you ask, “Would you say it is more marigold, butterscotch yellow, or Tuscan sun?” … your patient will have an answer.

Patients reveal stool color hesitantly, reservedly, with nervous expectation. They wait for your response in quivering anticipation that the coming reply will include words to the effect that a boysenberry-purple stool is equivalent to a Death tarot card. A subconjunctival hemorrhage is the only thing that approaches the anxiety level of the oddly hued stool (Oddly Hued Stool Anxiety). Woe be the patient with both. For a patient bearing a subconjunctival hemorrhage who has also passed a jungle-green stool in the past 24 hours fully expects to explode within the next 60 minutes.

I’ve been rather facetious for a reason. My purpose is to acknowledge and to help you recognize that most discussions regarding stooling will not be (forgive me) productive. They are not productive because most stool coloration issues are nonentities—yet they produce patient anxiety that takes some time to address, leaving a busy clinician prone to curtly dismiss such discussions out of hand. Because many patient-initiated stool discussions aren’t productive, there is the risk for stool tune-out. As gross and unproductive as they can be, don’t tune out all stool discussions.

In this case, the appropriate frequency of stooling should have been at least once per day. For newborns, a stool color question is helpful; stool should not be white, pale, or clay-colored, which is suggestive of acholic stools from biliary atresia. Here, despite the absence of stool over a 3-day period, the defendant concluded the feeding problem was resolved and set a return visit for 2 weeks later. The plaintiff’s expert contended that the weight loss and absence of stooling was evidence of inadequate intake and warranted a return check the next day. Rather than risk the case going to trial, the defendant settled for $1,375,000.


Newborn nutrition is important. Understand that parents will be anxious about newborn feeding, although often there is no major medical concern. However, do not be dismissive of feeding concerns because of this expected anxiety. Listen to the parents fully, paying particular attention to quantifying feeding difficulty and stooling frequency matters. Don’t let patients’ rainbow parade of needless stool concerns blind you to considering important information. In other words, don’t be a stool fool.


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