Four years ago a 38-year-old adjunct professor at American University named Fred Holliday began suffering from a variety of ailments: he was losing weight, his blood pressure went up. Then he cracked a rib. And he started suffering from debilitating back pain. Each time a new problem arose, the Washington, D.C., resident visited his doctor, who dealt with his symptoms piecemeal. First she prescribed blood-pressure medication. At another visit, she chalked up his fractured rib to violent coughing from a cold he had. Then she prescribed narcotics for his back. When his pain grew worse, she simply increased the dose of painkillers.
After months of this, Fred's wife, Regina, looked up his symptoms on the Web. Together, they pointed to kidney cancer. When the worried couple went back to the doctor, Regina recalls, she walked into the exam room, reading Fred's chart, and without looking up, asked, "Mr. Holliday, do you think you're depressed?" It was a routine question, based on the number of his complaints. Regina started laughing in disbelief. "Of course he was depressed," she says. "She wasn't taking care of him." At Regina's insistence, the doctor ordered an MRI, which showed that Fred had kidney cancer. He died about three months later.
These days, stories like the Hollidays' are cropping up all over, and while most don't have such tragic endings, they are signs that something in the world of medicine is seriously amiss.