Background: There have been several reports concerning the survival time after symptom onset in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). However, little is known about how the choice of physician (i.e., general practitioner, neurologist, etc.) may affect the time it takes for a diagnosis of ALS to be made.
Methods: We conducted a retrospective study, covering a 20-year period, comparing the type of physician first consulted by an ALS patient at the time of initial symptoms and the amount of time that elapsed to the final diagnosis of ALS. A total of 202 patients were diagnosed and stratified according to the onset of ALS symptoms (bulbar onset [BO] and limb onset [LO]). We noted the type of physician first seen by the patient. The diagnostic interval was calculated as the time between onset of symptoms and the final diagnosis of ALS.
Results: A total of 202 ALS patients were examined. Clinical BO and LO was observed in 78 (36.6%) and in 124 (61.4%) of these patients, respectively. The type of physician examining these patients at the first symptoms of disease was as follows (BO and LO): neurologist (38.5% and 25.8%), general practitioner (14.1% and 35.5%), orthopedist (12.8% and 35.5%), otolaryngologist (15.4% and 0%), and neurosurgeon (14.1% and 3.2%). Mean diagnostic interval (standard deviation) for patients with either set of symptoms was 13.1 (6.5) months; the diagnostic interval of patients with BO and LO was 9.2 (4.5) and 15.2 (7.7) months, respectively. ALS diagnosis in LO patients was delayed by more than 10 months when the patient first consulted an orthopedist rather than a neurologist.
Conclusion: More than 50% of the ALS patients included in this study did not visit a neurologist at the first symptoms of disease onset. The diagnosis of ALS was prolonged in LO patients visiting an orthopedist. We speculate that this increase in the diagnostic interval in LO patients visiting an orthopedist was due to a lack of bulbar symptoms in the early stages of this disease.