Conference Coverage

Pearls for administering cognitive exams during the pandemic



Patients have often been labeled as “poor historians” if they are not able to recollect their own medical history, whether through illness or difficulties in communication. But Fred Ovsiew, MD, speaking at Focus on Neuropsychiatry presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists, sees that label as an excuse on the part of the clinician.

Dr. Fred Ovsiew

“I strongly advise you to drop that phrase from your vocabulary if you do use it, because the patient is not the historian. The doctor, the clinician is the historian,” Dr. Ovsiew said at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education. “It is the clinician’s job to put the story together using the account by the patient as one source, but [also] interviewing a collateral informant and/or reviewing records, which is necessary in almost every case of a neuropsychiatric illness.”

Rather, clinicians taking history at the bedside should focus on why the patients cannot give a narrative account of their illness. Patients can have narrative incapacity on a psychogenic basis, such as in patients with conversion or somatoform disorder, he explained. “I think this is a result of the narrative incapacity that develops in people who have had trauma or adverse experiences in childhood and insecure attachment. This is shown on the adult attachment interview as a disorganized account of their childhoods.”

Other patients might not be able to recount their medical history because they are amnestic, which leaves their account vague because of a lack of access to information. “It may be frozen in time in the sense that, up to a certain point in their life, they can recount the history,” Dr. Ovsiew said. “But in recent years, their account becomes vague.”

Patients with right hemisphere lesions might not know that their account has incongruity and is implausible, while patients with dorsolateral prefrontal lesions might be aspontaneous, use few words to describe their situation, and have poor insight. Those with ventromedial prefrontal lesions can be impulsive and have poor insight, not considering alternative possibilities, Dr. Ovsiew noted.

Asking open-ended questions of the patient is the first step to identifying any potential narrative incapacity, followed by a detailed medical history by the clinician. When taking a medical history, try avoiding what Dr. Ovsiew calls the “anything like that?” problem, where a clinician asks a question about a cluster of symptoms that would make sense to a doctor, but not a patient. For example, a doctor might ask whether a patient is experiencing “chest pain or leg swelling – anything like that?” because he or she knows what those symptoms have in common, but the patient might not know the relationship between those symptoms. “You can’t count on the patient to tell you all the relevant information,” he said. “You have to know what to ask about.”

“Patients with brain disease have subtle personality changes, sometimes more obvious personality changes. These need to be inquired about,” Dr. Ovsiew said. He encouraged asking “non-DSM questions” to help identify specific symptoms of a neuropsychiatric illness. “The patient with apathy has reduced negative as well as positive emotions. The patient with depression has reduced positive emotions, but often tells you very clearly about the negative emotions of sadness, guilt. The patient with depression has diurnal variation in mood, a very telling symptom, especially when it’s disclosed spontaneously,” Dr. Ovsiew explained. “The point is, you need to know to ask about it.”

When taking a sleep history, clinicians should be aware of sleep disturbances apart from insomnia and early waking. REM sleep behavior disorder is a condition that should be inquired about. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that might not be immediately apparent to the patient, but a bed partner can identify whether a patient has problems breathing throughout the night.

“This is an important condition to uncover for the neuropsychiatrist because it contributes to treatment resistance and depression, and it contributes to cognitive impairment,” Dr. Ovsiew said. “These patients commonly have mild difficulties with attention and concentration.”

Always ask about head injury in every history, which can be relevant to later onset depression, PTSD, and cognitive impairment. Every head injury follows a trajectory of retrograde amnesia and altered state of consciousness (including coma), followed by a period of posttraumatic amnesia. Duration of these states can be used to assess the severity of brain injury, but the 15-point Glasgow Coma Scale is another way to assess injury severity, Dr. Ovsiew explained.

However, the two do not always overlap, he noted. “Someone may have a Glasgow Coma Scale score that is 9-12, predicting moderate brain injury, but they may have a short duration of amnesia. These don’t always follow the same path. There are many different ways of classifying how severe the brain injury is.”


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