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Ethnicity and Diagnosis in Patients With Affective Disorders

J Clin Psychiatry 2003;64:747-754

Background: Clinically, African American psychiatric patients are disproportionately diagnosed with schizophrenia compared with white patients. Why this occurs is unknown. Extending prior work, the authors hypothesized that first-rank symptoms distract clinicians so that they fail to identify affective disorders in African Americans.

Method: 195 African American and white patients with at least 1 psychotic symptom (delusions, hallucinations, or prominent thought disorder) at admission were recruited from January 1, 1998, through May 31, 2001. Each patient received 3 independent DSM-IV diagnoses: a clinical diagnosis, a structured-interview diagnosis, and an expert-consensus diagnosis. The expert-consensus diagnoses were derived from the structured interviews, which were audiotaped and transcribed, and medical records. After reviewing edited transcripts and medical records from which ethnic cues had been eliminated, 2 psychiatrists assigned expert-consensus diagnoses and first-rank symptom ratings. For the 79 patients who received an expert-consensus diagnosis of an affective disorder, clinical variables, diagnoses, and first-rank symptoms were compared between African American (N = 39) and white (N = 40) patients.

Results: Seventy-nine (41%) of 195 patients were diagnosed with an affective disorder by expert consensus. African American men with an expert-consensus affective disorder were significantly (p < .03) more likely than other patients to be diagnosed with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder by clinical assessment and structured interview. Although first-rank symptoms were more commonly identified in African American men, this finding did not explain the difference in diagnoses. Post hoc analyses suggested that African American men diagnosed with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder were more likely than other patients to have been identified during structured interview as having psychotic symptoms in the absence of affective symptoms.

Conclusion: The apparent misdiagnosis of schizophrenia in African-Americans with mood disorders cannot be ascribed to differences in first-rank symptoms. However, it may be due to a perception that psychotic symptoms are more chronic or persistent than affective symptoms in these patients.