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Diagnosis: Series Review

Angel: Every time I walk into a doctor’s office, they say: “We don’t know how to treat you. We don’t know what to do with you.”

If you enjoyed House M.D., but you liked it more for the resolution of the medical mysteries than the dramas between the characters, then this documentary series is for you.

I enjoyed House M.D. Hugh Laurie is a fine actor, and the rest of the cast was good as well. But over the years I grew a little bored with House’s rudeness and his struggles with addiction, even if he was in dreadful pain. The medical stuff is what kept me watching, and I sometimes wondered how realistic it all was.

In 2019, Netflix came out with seven episodes in a series called Diagnosis. It features Dr. Lisa Sanders, a Yale doctor who was a consultant for House, and who has had a column with the New York Times Magazine for nearly two decades. She explains that when she first entered medical school, she expected it to be like multiplication tables, where the answer is singular and clear. It turns out, however, that in many cases, the diagnosis is more like solving a mystery.

Dr. Sanders’ approach is very different from what is shown on House, since this is real life and not invented drama (although House was sometimes based on real cases). Instead of starting inside a hospital, after gathering information about a case, Dr. Sanders uses her column to throw the puzzle out to the world. “Using the internet we have the ability to harness all the intelligence, all the wisdom of doctors and regular people around to the world to help people who don’t have a diagnosis to get some answers. And that can save people’s lives.”

The subjects in each of the seven episodes have rare collections of symptoms, which are seriously destroying the quality of their lives or perhaps even threatening them with death. The combinations of conditions are so rare that finding a diagnosis is difficult, because most doctors have not encountered these sets of symptoms. However, today, with nearly eight billion humans on the planet, probability dictates that at least a few other people on the globe share a condition, and the fact that we are so connected makes it likely that at least some of them will hear about Dr. Sanders’ column.

Answers do arrive from other places on the planet. For example, doctors in Italy help Angel, the patient in the first episode.

Finding the right cases for this series must have been challenging. First, you need to find cases that are appropriate for the show, in other words, health conditions that have defied diagnosis for years. Second, these cases have to involve people who are willing to appear onscreen and to discuss their actual health problems, and generally involve their families, too.

Also, given how the cases progress – it can take months for a response, for example to get a complete analysis of a patient’s genes – camera teams had to be available at just the right moment, over a period of months, in order to catch the key parts of the progress (unless they did re-enactments, which wouldn't bother me much). Given these real-life issues, it’s not surprising that some episodes have some filler. In the last episode of the seven-part series, Dr. Sanders decides to consider two patients instead of just one in the episode. Both are experiencing paralysis, so there’s a theme.

Finally, not all the diagnoses are happy, and not all the patients accept their diagnoses. However, a few can look forward to improvements in their quality of life.

Title musings. “Diagnosis” is a clear title, and it is also the title of the doctor’s column in the New York Times Magazine. My subscription to the New York Times depends on my husband’s ever-changing attitude towards that publication, and he is currently against (I get the Washington Post), so I did not look at them. The column appears interesting, however, and I look forward to reading it when the newspaper offers my partner a deal he can't refuse.

Bits and pieces

I wonder if Dr. Lisa Cuddy, the hospital administrator of House for the first seven seasons, had her first name chosen for her in honor of the consultant.

Researching on the internet is often sneered at, especially when it involves health. But this is research being done right. Also, it’s lovely to see the internet being used for good rather than for ill.

The series was filmed in 2019, pre-pandemic. For obvious reasons, it could not be done during the pandemic. Netflix does not appear to have plans to shoot more episodes.

One reason I am pro-internet is because I discovered my own cure to a serious problem on the internet. I was suffering from Menière’s, a disease that causes tinnitus, deafness in an ear, and vertigo episodes so bad that you have trouble even turning over in bed (forget walking). Oh, and you vomit a lot, too. You don’t usually die from this, but you kind of want to. My doctor gave me the standard medical advice, but it did not resolve anything. After deep diving into the internet, which meant scrolling way down instead of sticking with the top-rated answers, I found a site that suggested the problems could be caused by gluten or dairy. My problem turned out to be gluten. I gave it up, and the episodes soon stopped (when I tested myself with gluten later, they came back). Furthermore, my health improved as my body was able to absorb more nutrients. Now, everyone reacts differently, and this site is not offering medical advice. Consult with your own health professionals!


Dr. Sanders: Diagnosis is the answer to the question, “Doctor, what’s wrong with me?”

Dr. Sanders: What I didn’t know is that there is not just one answer, but a dozen answers.

Mac (Angel's partner): No matter what, she’s never let her disorder win.

Angel: Not knowing is the scariest thing in the world. Not knowing is what’s holding me back.

Dr. Sanders: I’m not Angel’s doctor, but what I can do is put Angel’s story to the crowd, and see what they can come up with.

Dr. Sanders: It's not a diagnosis. It’s a symptom.

Angel: I could have just switched my diet 10 years ago and I wouldn’t be in all this pain.

Overall Rating

I always had an interest in biology, and with the pandemic, I have become even more interested in all things medical. Besides, with the stress of climate change and the constant anger in politics, it was a relief to focus on something that is entirely outside of these pressing issues. Diagnosis is interesting and informative series. Three out of four syringes.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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