House, the prickly doctor-genius with an astonishingly convincing American accent, has earned Hugh Laurie fame in America and plaudits of both sides of the Atlantic. Now, despite the minor disadvantage of being a fictional character, he has also helped save a life.
In a submission to one of the world’s leading medical journals, German doctors report the case of a man who came to hospital suffering from severe heart failure. Medical examinations at the Marburg University clinic ruled out the most likely causes, coronary artery disease. The 55-year-old man also had fever of unknown origin, had gone almost deaf and blind and had an underactive thyroid.
Fortunately for him, the Marburg is unusual among teaching hospitals for offering a lecture entitled: ‘Dr House revisited – or: would we have saved the patient in Marburg as well?’ – led by Dr Juergen R. Schaefer of the hospital’s Centre for Undiagnosed Diseases.
Clinicians quickly noticed striking similarities between the man’s symptoms and those displayed by a fictional patient in an episode used in one of the lectures, which teach students to diagnose rare diseases.
“Searching for the cause combining these symptoms - and remembering an episode of the TV series House which we used for teaching medical students (series seven, episode 11) - we suspected cobalt intoxication as the most likely reason,” the doctors write in The Lancet today.
It emerged that the patient’s problems had started half a year after a hip replacement in May 2010, in which a broken ceramic-on-ceramic artificial hip was changed for a metal-on-plastic version. The metal had been worn down by ceramic particles left behind, and was now spread into the bloodstream, poisoning the man to the point that he was in a serious condition by the time he arrived at Dr Schaefer’s clinic in May 2012.
For more than a year the problem had gone undiagnosed, but it was almost identical to a case that House diagnoses in an episode called Family Practice, first shown in 2011. The patient was sent to have his hip replaced again, with a new ceramic version. He stabilised and his heart function later recovered.
“I must admit House was pretty helpful in this case,” Dr Schaefer told The Independent. “I did a seminar on cobalt intoxication and then half a year later came across this patient.”
“I have used the show for five years as a teaching tool. When it started I used it just to get the students into the lecture hall. But it worked and we had 30 to 40 students in to listen to lectures on rare and unusual diseases.”
The newspapers soon caught on, dubbing Dr Schaefer ‘the German House’. It proved a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading patients from around the country to his clinic with their mystery conditions.
“Patients who had been troubled for years with undiagnosed diseases call me up and say: ‘Well you are the German Dr House, can I get an appointment!’” he said.
The clinic has helped many patients with previously undiagnosed diseases and Dr Schaefer has won national awards for his teaching and his clinical skills – but he remains modest about the House comparisons.
“He is a troublesome character, but based on his medical skills I take it as a compliment,” he said. “It is such a great TV show, where they use true stories from case reports from the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. So it’s only a matter of time before you will bump into a patient with the same problems.”