A case is presented of a 37-year-old black woman with a 5-year history of a chronic psychotic illness, diagnosed as schizophrenia, who presented to the emergency room complaining of a severe headache, while appearing confused and experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations. The purpose of this case study is to illustrate the way in which the appellation of schizophrenia can be misapplied in a patient with a complicated medical history and poor follow-up evaluation and treatment.
Patients with active psychosis are frequently unable to provide a coherent or comprehensive medical history. In the absence of obvious indications to the contrary, a diagnosis of a primary psychiatric illness is often assumed, especially if this label has been applied in the past. However, the differential diagnosis of psychosis is extensive.
This patient was given a complete psychiatric and neurologic evaluation, and aspects of the history that had been lost or ignored were uncovered and reevaluated.
A diagnosis other than schizophrenia was made and another treatment, other than antipsychotic drugs, was initiated. The patient responded rapidly with improved cognitive function and resolution of her psychotic symptoms.
This case serves to illustrate how the absence of a careful clinical assessment and historical case review, in patients who have been previously labeled as schizophrenic, can perpetuate misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatments. It highlights the importance, especially in patients with an incomplete medical history, of ruling out all organic causes of psychosis to avoid inappropriately labeling someone as having a psychiatric illness.