Rare Diseases Report 2022

Health care providers should have higher suspicion for rare diseases


The number of cataloged rare diseases continues to grow every day. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, more than 6,800 rare diseases have been identified and between 25 million and 30 million Americans are living with rare diseases today.

Marshall L. Summar, MD, is chief of the division of genetics and metabolism at Children’s National Hospital in Washington DC.

Dr. Marshall L. Summar

Rare diseases have collectively emerged as a unique field of medicine with an “entirely new generation of conditions,” said Marshall L. Summar, MD, chief of the division of genetics and metabolism at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. He places the number of rare diseases closer to 8,000, and said it is “growing by a rate of 10 to 12 a week.”

Although the field has made significant advancements in health care providers’ ability to diagnose rare diseases, it has also highlighted what isn’t known as well, said Dr. Summar, who is also past president and a former scientific advisory board member with the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).

Keeping up to date on the latest rare diseases may seem like a daunting task to the average health care professional. However, while rare diseases remain the domain of the subspecialists, the generalist “can make a tremendous impact for their patients” early in the process by having a higher suspicion for rare diseases in their practice, said Dr. Summar.

Thinking of rare diseases in categories

Many patients with undiagnosed rare diseases undergo what’s commonly referred to as a “diagnostic odyssey,” moving from one provider to another to try to find an explanation for a condition they may or may not know is rare. For some patients, this process can take many years or even decades. From the patient’s perspective, the main challenges are recognizing they have a problem that doesn’t fit a common disease model. Once they recognize they have a potential rare disease, working with a provider to find the right diagnosis among the “vast number of disease diagnoses and designations, and actually sifting through it to find the one that’s right for that patient” is the next challenge, said Dr. Summar.

However, knowledge of rare diseases among health care professionals is low, according to a 2019 paper published in the Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases. In a survey from that paper asking general practitioners, pediatricians, specialists caring for adults, and specialists caring for children to evaluate their own knowledge of rare diseases, 42% of general practitioners said they had poor knowledge and 44% said they had a substandard understanding of rare diseases.

From a clinician’s standpoint, diagnosing rare diseases in their patients can be challenging, with the potential for overreferral or overdiagnosis. However, it is also easy to underdiagnose rare diseases by missing them, noted Dr. Summar. This issue can vary based on the experience of the provider, he said, because while general practitioners who recently began practicing may have had more exposure to rare diseases, for health care professionals who have been practicing for decades, “this is a new arrival in their field.”

During a busy day finding that extra time in an appointment to stop and question whether a patient might have a rare disease is another problem generalists face. “It is really tough for those general practitioners, because if you see 40 or 50 patients per day, how do you know which one of those [patients] were the ones that had something that wasn’t quite fitting or wasn’t quite ordinary?” he said.

When it comes to considering rare diseases in their patients, health care professionals in general practice should think in categories, rather than a particular rare disease, according to Dr. Summar. As the generalist is typically on the front lines of patient care, they don’t necessarily need to know everything about the rare disease they suspect a patient of having to help them. “You don’t need to know the specific gene and the specific mutation to make the diagnosis, or to even move the patient forward in the process,” he said.

The first steps a clinician can take include noticing when something with a patient is amiss, thinking about the disease category, and then creating a plan to move forward, such as referring the patient to a subspecialist. Learning to recognize when a cluster of symptoms doesn’t fit a pattern is important, as patients and their providers tend to gravitate toward diagnoses they are used to seeing, rather than suspecting a disease outside a usual pattern.

The framing of rare diseases as categories is a change in thinking over the last decade, said Dr. Summar. Whereas rare disease diagnoses previously focused on fitting certain criteria, the development of more refined genetic sequencing has allowed specialists to focus on categories and genes that affect rare diseases. “Getting at a diagnosis has really been turned up on its head, so that by employing both next-generation sequencing, newborn screening, and other [tools], we can actually get to diagnoses faster than we could before,” he said.

In terms of assessing for symptoms, health care professionals should be aware that “common” symptoms can be a sign of rare disease. What to look out for are the uncommon symptoms that create an “aha moment.” Having a “good filter” for sensing when something isn’t quite right with a patient is key. “It’s like any time when you’re screening things: You want high sensitivity, but you also have to have high specificity,” he said.

Another clinical pearl is that good communication between patient and provider is paramount. “We’re not always good listeners. Sometimes we hear what we expect to hear,” said Dr. Summar.


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