Characteristics of undiagnosed diseases network applicants: implications for referring providers

BMC Health Serv Res. 2018 Aug 22;18(1):652. doi: 10.1186/s12913-018-3458-2.


Background: The majority of undiagnosed diseases manifest with objective findings that warrant further investigation. The Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN) receives applications from patients whose symptoms and signs have been intractable to diagnosis; however, many UDN applicants are affected primarily by subjective symptoms such as pain and fatigue. We sought to characterize presenting symptoms, referral sources, and demographic factors of applicants to the UDN to identify factors that may determine application outcome and potentially differentiate between those with undiagnosed diseases (with more objective findings) and those who are less likely to have an undiagnosed disease (more subjective symptoms).

Methods: We used a systematic retrospective review of 151 consecutive Not Accepted and 50 randomly selected Accepted UDN applications. The primary outcome was whether an applicant was Accepted, or Not Accepted, and, if accepted, whether or not a diagnosis was made. Objective and subjective symptoms and information on prior specialty consultations were collected from provider referral letters. Demographic data and decision data on network acceptance were gathered from the UDN online portal.

Results: Fewer objective findings and more subjective symptoms were found in the Not Accepted applications. Not Accepted referrals also were from older individuals, reported a shorter period of illness, and were referred to the UDN by their primary care physicians. All of these differences reached statistical significance in comparison with Accepted applications. The frequency of subspecialty consults for diagnostic purposes prior to UDN application was similar in both groups.

Conclusions: The preponderance of subjective and lack of objective findings in the Not Accepted applications distinguish these from applicants that are accepted for evaluation and diagnostic efforts through the UDN. Not Accepted applicants are referred primarily by their primary care providers after multiple specialist consultations fail to yield answers. Distinguishing between patients with undiagnosed diseases with objective findings and those with primarily subjective findings can delineate patients who would benefit from further diagnostic processes from those who may have functional disorders and need alternative pathways for management of their symptoms.

Trial registration: NCT02450851 , posted May 21st 2015.

Keywords: Genomics; Health policy; Medically unexplained physical symptoms; Medically unexplained symptoms; Undiagnosed diseases.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Decision Making
  • Disease Management*
  • Female
  • Government Programs
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • National Institutes of Health (U.S.)
  • Rare Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Referral and Consultation / organization & administration*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United States
  • Young Adult

Associated data