“How did we miss out on that?” “What?” my physician friend replied as we stood in line at the coffee cart. “Root cause. I mean, we invented this idea and now all these naturopaths and functional medicine quacks are gettin’ rich off it.” “Take it easy,” he says. “Just order a coffee.”
It’s hard not to be indignant. I had a morning clinic with three patients insisting I find the “root cause” of their problem. Now, if one had flagellate dermatitis after eating Asian mushroom soup, I’d have said “Root cause? Shiitake mushrooms!” and walked out like Costanza in Seinfeld, “All right, that’s it for me! Be good everybody!”
Alas no. They had perioral dermatitis, alopecia areata, eczema – no satisfying “roots” for walk-off answers.
There is a universal desire to find the proximal cause for problems. Patients often want to know it so that we address the root of their trouble and not just cut off the branches. This is deeply gratifying for those who want not only to know why, but also to have agency in how to control their disease. For example, if they believe the root cause of perioral dermatitis was excess yeast, then eating a “candida diet’’ should do the trick! Food sensitivities, hormones, and heavy metals round out the top suspects that root cause patients want to talk about.
Of course, patients have been asking about this for a long time, but lately, the root cause visit seems to be on trend. Check out any hip primary care start-up such as One Medical or any hot direct-to-consumer virtual offering such as ParsleyHealth and you will see root-cause everywhere. Our patients are expecting us to address it, or it seems they will find someone cooler who will.
Yet, it wasn’t the slick marketing team at ParsleyHeath who invented the “root cause doctor visit.” We did. It’s an idea that started with our Greek physician ancestors. Breaking from the diviners and priests, we were the first “naturalists” positing that there was a natural, not a divine cause for illness. The cardinal concept in the Hippocratic Corpus was that health was an equilibrium and illness an imbalance. They didn’t have dehydroepiandrosterone tests or mercury levels, but did have bodily fluids. Yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm, were the root of all root causes. A physician simply had to identify which was in excess or deficient and fix that to cure the disease. Interestingly, the word “diagnosis” appears only once in the Corpus. The word “Diagignoskein” appears occasionally but this describes studying thoroughly, not naming a diagnosis as we understand it.
Advances in chemistry in the 17th century meant physicians could add new theories, and new root causes. Now alkaline or other chemical elixirs were added to cure at the source. Since there was no verifiable evidence to prove causes, theories were adopted to provide some rational direction to treatment. In the 18th century, physicians such as, one of the original faculty at the University of Pennsylvania school of medicine, taught that spasms of the arteries were the root cause of illnesses. “Heroic” treatments such as extreme bloodletting were the cure. (Note, those patients who survived us kept coming back to us for more).
Scientific knowledge and diagnostic technologies led to more and more complex and abstruse causes. Yet, as we became more precise and effective, our explanations became less satisfying to our patients. I can diagnose and readily treat perioral dermatitis, yet I’m hard pressed to give an answer to its root cause. “Root cause? Yes. Just apply this pimecrolimus cream for a couple of weeks and it’ll be better! All right, that’s it for me! Be good everybody!”
You’ll have to do better, George.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org