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(PSYCHIATRIC TIMES) - Patients who exaggerate, feign, or induce physical illness are a great challenge to their physicians. Trained to trust their patients’ self-reports, even competent and conscientious physicians can fall victim to these deceptions. In doing so, the treating physician may unwittingly provide support for specious claims of illness or injury by conferring official diagnoses, or by delivering treatments that transform the patient from a pretender into a person with a genuine, although iatrogenic, medical problem (eg, via adrenalectomy, pancreatectomy, serial amputation).1-3

Forensic psychiatrists may be called on during civil or criminal litigation to help determine the authenticity of a patient’s apparent medical illnesses or injuries. Even when a patient’s medical deceptions are proved beyond any doubt, the forensic psychiatrist may be asked to help determine the underlying psychological processes that led to the deception. In other cases, the patient may pursue civil damages from the treating physician for performing unnecessary interventions, and the forensic psychiatrist is asked to weigh in on the culpability of a colleague for failing to detect the deception.4-6

The forensic psychiatrist faces 2 synergistically related obstacles. First, in contrast to malingering, there is little empirical research on the nature of factitious disorder, its underlying psychological processes, or ways to assess it. Second, despite the aforementioned lack of scientific evidence, DSM-IV-TR provides an artificially definitive classification system for patients with inauthentic illness behavior, to which the examiner’s conclusions are expected to correspond.

Consciousness, intentionality, and insanity in DSM

Many decisions in legal proceedings boil down to the question of consciousness and intention. Was the defendant aware of what he or she was doing, did he intend to do it, and was the motive for doing it reasonable? Conveniently, DSM-IV-TR categories dealing with inauthentic illness behavior (ie, behaving as if one is sick when one really is not) neatly address these questions.

The DSM somatoform disorders category specifies 5 disorders for which inauthentic illness behavior presumably is neither conscious nor intentional. These are somatization disorder, hypochondriasis, conversion disorder, pain disorder, and undifferentiated somatoform disorder. It specifies another category—factitious disorder—in which inauthentic illness behavior is consciously and intentionally produced. This category is reserved for people whose motives appear to reflect severe psycho-pathology (eg, a person who would agree to prophylactic double mastectomy just to get attention from medical personnel, friends, and coworkers).7 DSM also recognizes cases of malingering (as a “V” code, not a true psychiatric diagnosis) in which the inauthentic medical behavior is conscious, intentional, and reflects more comprehensible motives (eg, faking a fall in a retail store to get millions of dollars in compensation for medical and emotional damages).

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