The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 13

I have answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

21. Why do people care so much about diagnostic criteria?
• Historically speaking, the medical establishment tends to draw very explicit borders around diagnoses. There are several reasons for this.
• It is partly to help diagnose things correctly. There are thousands and thousands of diseases and disease states. The most effective way of getting as many people as possible correctly diagnosed with a disease is to define what that disease is and how you diagnose it. That doesn’t mean that every person who has this disease will always be diagnosed correctly. It also doesn’t mean that every person who doesn’t have this disease will be diagnosed with something else. It just means that this is the best way to diagnose the largest point of people all over the place.
• It is also to strength any research done around these diagnoses. As a scientist, who has to operate within the trappings of specific diagnoses with specific criteria, it is 100% necessary for me to do my job well.
• We have to know that all the patients in a study meet the same criteria. It’s not enough for their doctor to give them a diagnosis because they think that’s what they have even if they don’t meet the criteria. Let’s look at this a little more closely below, under the heading “Blue Disease.”
• The bottom line is that diagnostic criteria is the foundational bedrock of the Western medicine establishment (and some Eastern traditions as well).
Diagnostic criteria also help determine what insurance companies will pay for. If you are a provider caught saying a bunch of patients have a diagnosis that they don’t have, you can be charged with insurance fraud. That can carry significant penalties including fines, loss of license and even prison time.
• Furthermore, if a doctor is caught misdocumenting diagnosis, insurance companies will crack down on patients with the same diagnosis in other places, making it harder for everyone to get treatment. There have been situations in recent history where patients getting a very expensive treatment were required to stop treatment to prove that they needed it since doctors were prescribing it for many other conditions without documenting it correctly.
• The last reasons why everyone cares about diagnostic criteria are related more to the experiences of patients within this community. Most of us have been misdiagnosed more than once. It can really complicate things and it can endanger people. It can also really scare people, too.
• Finally, most of us in this community have been lied to someone impersonating a rare patient at least once and usually more. It is exhausting and insulting.
• I want to be very clear that the reason a lot of people get stuck on diagnostic criteria is NOT because people who don’t meet one or the other set are not deserving of treatment or are not as sick. That is not the case at all.

Blue Disease:

• Let’s say that I am running a study on a disease called Blue Disease. Blue Disease is a condition that strikes people on their 25th birthday. On this day, people with this disease just wake up completely blue. They are never not blue again. I am interested in Blue Disease and so I design a study for it.
• In order to fund my study, I have to get grant funding. This money may be from a private foundation or a university or the government. I have to convince them to care about Blue Disease. More importantly, I have to convince them that the money they give me will be used intelligently and not wasted.
• Let’s say that I let in 100 people who all tell me they have Blue Disease. They are all blue. They all are older then 25. I let them in to my study to research a medicine to treat this disease.
• At the end of my study, I have found that if I give most of them a medicine called anti-Blue, their blue goes away. There is gladness and rejoicing. I find that 90 out of 100 respond to the medicine. Hooray! That’s a 90% success rate.
• Except then I find out that not all of those people actually had Blue Disease. Some of them turned blue before their 25th birthday. Some of them started purple, then became blue, then green. And so instead of having a 90% success rate for Blue Disease, we find that it’s much less effective than 90% for Blue Disease. We know that it has helped some other people not be blue but we don’t even know what disease they have. And I am in a hell of pickle as a researcher because I don’t know what these data mean.
• Because the medication seems not very effective for Blue Disease, it doesn’t get approved or prescribed to people who have Blue Disease.
• Because my study was not controlled enough, no one wants to give me any more money to research this disease. In certain situations, I could actually have to pay back the money, would almost certainly lose my job, and could be prosecuted because I have an ethical obligation to only research the disease I say I will research in a study.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

The Provider Primer Series: Cutaneous Mastocytosis/ Mastocytosis in the Skin

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (SM-AHD, MCL, MCS)