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Physicians as Morons

I do know that title sounds judgmental, perhaps even harsh, but sometimes you wonder if there might not be a bevy of physicians who received their education online at the University of Phoenix, or their medical licenses by having a relative in Springfield.

Recently, I’ve been seeing some patients whose previous medical management has caused me to shake my head in disbelief. These are the “what in heaven’s name could their doctors have been thinking?” sort of patient, and though fortunately no harm had been done it took a while for these patients to recover from what I call “post-traumatic stress disorder of the healthcare system.”

All this reminded me of a new patient I saw several years ago. She’d sent me a desperate, but undeniably intriguing, email saying she’d recently been diagnosed with “acquired hypertrichosis” and that no one could figure out how to help her.

“Hypertrichosis” simply means “excessive hair growth,” but we in medicine re-name everything since apparently the key to a successful profession lies in obscure and unpronounceable vocabulary.

At any rate, she was growing hair everywhere, and it was growing rather rapidly if the dollars she was spending on electrolysis were any indicator. She told me that someone had used the term “werewolf syndrome,” but when one of her other physicians checked into it he reassured her this particular condition was exceedingly rare and usually congenital (i.e., you were born hairy).

Fedor Jeftichew, better known by his circus moniker Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, is the most famous example of congenital hypertrichosis. You can bet if my patient saw that portrait of Jo-Jo, her heart began some serious thudding in her chest.

The woman’s primary care physician agreed that she was indeed growing hair everywhere and, unable to make a diagnosis himself, referred her to an endocrinologist and a dermatologist. The endocrinologist immediately began a work-up for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a fairly common condition in which a woman’s ovaries start secreting the male hormone testosterone. PCOS can produce a different kind of excessive hair growth called hirsutism, in which hair grows as it would on a man’s body, most visibly on the upper lip and jawline.

Nevertheless, in something I refer to as automatic-pilot thinking the endocrinologist blindly pursued the PCOS route. So automatic was his thinking that even though her ovaries were normal (no cysts, as occurs in PCOS) and her testosterone level was completely normal he prescribed the drug used for PCOS, spironolactone. This drug blocks testosterone and, for women with PCOS, slows hair growth.

But she didn’t have PCOS.

The dermatologist was equally puzzled and told her there really were no more tests to run. He agreed with the endocrinologist’s approach.

Based on her email and, quite honestly, my own curiosity, I added her to one of my emergency appointment slots. Overall, she looked well, though clearly (and sensibly) she was very worried. As she related this medical history, I said, “You know, sometimes the medicines we’re prescribed have really odd side effects, including something like excessive hair growth. Tell me everything you’re taking.”

“I’m on birth control pills, the spironolactone, and Propecia.”

“Did I hear you correctly?” I asked. “Did you say Propecia?”

“Yes, my primary-care doctor prescribed it about a year ago and in fact a few months ago  increased the dose.”

All about Propecia
Propecia (generic: finasteride) is one of those drugs known as a two-fer, meaning when the drug was originally released, FDA-approved for condition A, an interesting side effect began appearing that could later be marketed for condition B. You can imagine that getting double-bang for a drug’s buck is like hitting the lottery for any Big Pharma CEO, as this also allows for an extension on the patent and forestalls the plummet in profits when the drug would have otherwise become available generically.

Finasteride was originally released as Proscar, for prostate enlargement, but when men reported that their long-lost scalp hair was growing back, after some speedily performed clinical trials the FDA approved low-dose finasteride for male-pattern baldness. And despite a few annoying side effects, among them loss of libido, impotence, erectile dysfunction, and a tendency to grow breasts, desperate balding men saw Propecia as new hope (and hair) on the horizon.

Finasteride was never approved for women because it causes serious birth defects, though doctors do prescribe it off-label for women, helpfully reminding them to take their birth control pills.

Other famous two-fers you may have heard of are Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Loniten. Prozac helps some women with PMS, so after FDA approval for depression its manufacturer was allowed to sell Prozac rebranded as Sarafem for PMS. If you don’t know the ropes of drug pricing, you (or your insurance company) will pay either $10 for 100 tablets of 20-mg Prozac at Costco or $10 per tablet (!) for a seven-tablet pack of the same Prozac, except that it’s called Sarafem.

When people taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin discovered they weren’t enjoying their cigarettes, just as the drug was going generic the FDA allowed more profits by rebranding it as the quit-smoking drug Zyban.

You’re likely unfamiliar with Loniten, a rarely used medicine for severe high blood pressure. But Loniten had a cash cow of a side effect. Like Proscar/Propecia, Loniten grew hair…and you now likely know it much better as Rogaine.

But back to my hairy patient
I knew in advance the answer to my next question, “Why were you started on Propecia?” One year earlier, her scalp hair had looked thin and she was desperate. The Propecia had worked and she was grateful for it. Everything she’d read about Propecia referred to “scalp hair” and she simply never made the connection to growing hair everywhere. And, to be honest, making that connection is not her job, but rather that of the doctor who wrote the prescription in the first place.

Having the internet in your medical office is very handy. In a trice I was able to show her  that roughly 5% of women prescribed Propecia do develop hypertrichosis. On the plus side, within 8 to 12 weeks of discontinuing the drug the hypertrichosis disappears. She could either stop taking the Propecia or tithe her earnings to electrolysis treatment. The choice was hers.

This is irresponsible medicine
A primary care doc prescribes a hair-growing drug and then “diagnoses” his patient with acquired hypertrichosis. She sees two separate specialists who apparently don’t even glance at her medication list (as you know, when you register in a doctor’s office you’re asked to list all the drugs you’re taking). One subjects her to unnecessary diagnostic tests and prescribes a medication for a condition she does not have. The other agrees with this approach.

I try not to be too hard on my colleagues because after decades of practice I admit I’ve missed a few diagnoses myself. But this is unconscionable. We doctors have a vast number of risky chemicals at our disposal (some of them very beneficial) and yet don’t seem smart enough to use them correctly.

Again–and again–the best advice I can give you: Take good care of yourself.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD    

Leave a Comment


  1. Addie says:

    Call me sadistic, but I find this hilarious, Glad you didn’t report a more horrible mix-up.

  2. Evie Maurer says:

    Another brilliant article from an extremely brilliant doctor! Thank you Dr. Edelberg! I wish there were more docs like you. Perhaps we need to clone you; you truly are a blessing! Too bad we don’t have you here in Florida!
    Thank you,
    Evie Maurer

  3. Marlene Breslow-Blitstein says:

    Hi David, You are amazing. I believe that many of my problems have come from over medication and/or misdiagnosis. I think I probably need to come in for a tune up with you. Do they still call it a tune up in the automotive industry? See you soon. Marlene

  4. Diane Engelhardt says:

    I love your articles. They are always written with just the right amount of humor. I found your practice on Twitter where I read posts on ND stuff, whole foods and veggies! I found my own ND when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 at age 52. Doctor Levine (WA) has changed my life! Keep up the good work and the great writing!

  5. Jill says:

    Dr. E, you know how to tell a nail-biter that’s certain. It’s all too sad that these are true stories of the medical establishment gone awry.
    Don’t worry– I’m taking my vitamins and supplements as I type…

  6. Cara Winter says:

    Dr. E,

    Thank you for this article (and all of your articles, especially the recent ones regarding Big Pharma).

    We’ve had our own battles with mis-diagnoses and drugs. At age 2, our son was diagnosed with Constrictive Airway Disease and Acid Reflux, and was put on FOUR heavy-duty drugs. Because of what I’ve learned from you, I kept searching for the underlying CAUSE, determined NOT to let him stay on these medications forever.

    Turns out … he’s allergic to eggs, milk and wheat! Once we eliminated these foods… poof! Healthy child. No more expensive allergy and asthma drugs, no more tummy troubles, and no more constant runny noes and fevers!

    Your views on Wellness has greaty influenced me on how I think about Health, how I take care of myself, and how I take care of my child. Thank you.

    Cara Winter

  7. Alma says:

    Thanks for sharing. I hope your patient gets better soon. I am saddened by the fact that most doctors seem to have lost ability to listen to their patients and make intelligent connections. Everybody is busy writing into the patients’ charts and subscribing expensive chemicals. Not many doctors really just listen, pause and think. You still do. Thank you.

  8. Gina Pera says:

    Wow.

    But you say this wasn’t part of the patient’s “job”? Don’t patients need to be pro-active?

    To me, this patient made a common mistake: turning over her health to MDs. Abdicating responsibility.

    I mean, really, she’s taking a drug known to promote hair growth and she can’t figure out why she’s growing hair?

    That just indicates to me massively low IQ or total abdication of responsibility for her own health.

    And it IS amazing that the endocrinologist was starting her on yet another drug. Wait, “amazing” isn’t the right word. “Predictable” is more like it.

  9. Jo says:

    I have to wonder about some doctors, too. I’ve been noticing the signs of osteoporosis in 2 of my friends (both over 55), yet neither is aware of it. If I can tell, shouldn’t their physician be able to also?!

  10. Mary Maxwell says:

    your the best, why I come to you

  11. sheryl says:

    lol…I’m a nurse and I don’t think I need to say anything more….;-)

  12. Amy says:

    50% of doctors ranked in the bottom half of their class. I think it is applicable here. Add in the influence of big pharma, patients’ demands for immediate fixes, and the insane patient loads some doctors carry, and it’s easy to see why so many patients slip through the cracks. I saw a woman on the ‘L’ a few years ago who was rubbing her neck and shoulders, obviously in pain. Something possessed me to introduce myself to her and tell her I have fibromyalgia. A look of recognition came across her face and she said, “I think I have it, too, but I can’t find a doctor who will help me.” Passed Dr. E’s name and number on to her. It doesn’t take a genius to be a keen observer.

  13. Deb Morrin says:

    This is priceless, I forwarded it to everyone I know. Thank you! Brilliant! You are the best!

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