Bioethics Blogs

Diagnostic dilemmas: When potentially transient preexisting diagnoses confer chronic harm

By Elaine Walker
Elaine Walker is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Emory University.   She leads a research laboratory that is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study risk factors for psychosis and other serious mental illnesses.  Her research is focused on the behavioral and neuromaturational changes that precede psychotic disorders.   She has published over 300 scientific articles and 6 books. 
The diagnostic process can be complicated by many factors. Most of these factors reflect limitations in our scientific understanding of the nature and course of disorders. But in the current US healthcare climate, legislative proposals concerning insurance coverage for preexisting conditions add another layer of complexity to the diagnostic process. It is a layer of complexity that is riddled with ethical dilemmas which are especially salient in the field of mental health care. The following discussion addresses the interplay between medical practice and health-care system policy in the diagnostic process. The diagnosis of psychiatric disorders is emphasized because they present unique challenges [1]. 

Of course, some of the complications associated with diagnosis are a function of ambiguous and/or changing diagnostic criteria. For example, the criteria for designating the level of symptom severity that crosses the boundary into clinical disorder change over time as a function of scientific advances. This has occurred for numerous illnesses, including metabolic, cardiovascular, and psychiatric disorders [2]. Further, especially in psychiatry, diagnostic categories undergo revision over time, even to the extent that some behavioral “syndromes” previously considered an illness have been eliminated from diagnostic taxonomies.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.