I’m not the smartest dermatologist in our department. We’re fortunate to have a few super-smarties, you know, the ones who can still recite all the genes in Jean Bolognia’s dermatology textbook and have “Dermpath Bowl Champion” plaques covering their walls. Yet as our chief, I often get requests for a second or third opinion, hoping somehow I’ll discover a diagnosis that others missed. Sometimes they are real diagnostic dilemmas. Oftentimes they’re just itchy.
Recently an itchy 73-year-old woman came to see me. She had seen several competent dermatologists, had comprehensive workups, and had reasonable, even aggressive, attempts at treating. Not much interesting in her history. Nothing on exam. Cancer workup was negative as was pretty much any autoimmune or allergic cause. Biopsy? Maybe a touch of “dermal hypersensitivity.” She was still upset at being told previously she might have scabies. “Scabies!” she said indignantly. “How could I have scabies? No one has touched this body in nearly 4 years!” That’s interesting, I thought.
The electronic medical record holds a lot of useful information. We spend hours combing through histories, labs, pathology, scans, drugs to search for clues that might help with diagnoses. One tab we hardly visit is demographics. Why should that matter, of course? Age, phone number, and address are typically not contributory. But for this woman there was a bit of data that mattered; I checked right after her remark. Marital status: Widowed. She couldn’t have had scabies because no one touches her. Anymore. As our comprehensive workup did not find a cause nor did treatments mitigate her symptoms, I wondered if loneliness might be a contributing factor. I asked if anyone else was itching, any family, any friends? “No, I live alone. I don’t have anyone.”
, and dementia for example. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, it increases the risk for premature death comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Yet, we rarely (ever?) ask people if they’re lonely. In part because we don’t have good treatments. Remedies for loneliness are mostly societal – reaching out to the widowed, creating spaces that encourage connection, organizing events that bring people together. I cannot type any of these into the EMR orders. However, merely mentioning that a patient could be lonely can be therapeutic. They might not recognize its impact or that they have agency to make it better. They also might not see how their lives still have meaning, an important comorbidity of loneliness.
Not long after her appointment was a 63-year-old man who complained of a burning scrotum. He worked as a knife sharpener, setting up a folding table at local groceries and farmers markets. COVID killed most of his gigs. Like the woman who didn’t have scabies, comprehensive workups turned up nothing. And seemingly nothing, including antibiotics, gabapentin, indomethacin, lidocaine, helped. At his last visit, we talked about his condition. We had also talked about the proper way to sharpen a knife. I came in prepared to offer something dramatic this visit, methotrexate, dupilumab? But before I could speak, he opened a recycled plastic grocery bag and dumped out knives of various sizes. Also a small ax. He then proceeded to show me how each knife has to be sharpened in its own way. Before leaving he handed me a well-worn Arkansas sharpening stone. “For you,” he said. I gave him no additional recommendations or treatments. He hasn’t been back to dermatology since.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.