Pearls for Administering Cognitive Exams During the Pandemic

Jeff Craven

August 24, 2020

Patients have often been labeled as "poor historians" if they are not able to recollect their own medical history, whether through illness or difficulties in communication. But Fred Ovsiew, MD, speaking at Focus on Neuropsychiatry presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists, sees that label as an excuse on the part of the clinician.

"I strongly advise you to drop that phrase from your vocabulary if you do use it, because the patient is not the historian. The doctor, the clinician is the historian," Dr. Ovsiew said at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education. "It is the clinician's job to put the story together using the account by the patient as one source, but [also] interviewing a collateral informant and/or reviewing records, which is necessary in almost every case of a neuropsychiatric illness."

Dr Fred Ovsiew

Rather, clinicians taking history at the bedside should focus on why the patients cannot give a narrative account of their illness. Patients can have narrative incapacity on a psychogenic basis, such as in patients with conversion or somatoform disorder, he explained. "I think this is a result of the narrative incapacity that develops in people who have had trauma or adverse experiences in childhood and insecure attachment. This is shown on the adult attachment interview as a disorganized account of their childhoods."

Other patients might not be able to recount their medical history because they are amnestic, which leaves their account vague because of a lack of access to information. "It may be frozen in time in the sense that, up to a certain point in their life, they can recount the history," Dr. Ovsiew said. "But in recent years, their account becomes vague."

Patients with right hemisphere lesions might not know that their account has incongruity and is implausible, while patients with dorsolateral prefrontal lesions might be aspontaneous, use few words to describe their situation, and have poor insight. Those with ventromedial prefrontal lesions can be impulsive and have poor insight, not considering alternative possibilities, Dr. Ovsiew noted.

Asking open-ended questions of the patient is the first step to identifying any potential narrative incapacity, followed by a detailed medical history by the clinician. When taking a medical history, try avoiding what Dr. Ovsiew calls the "anything like that?" problem, where a clinician asks a question about a cluster of symptoms that would make sense to a doctor, but not a patient.

For example, a doctor might ask whether a patient is experiencing "chest pain or leg swelling — anything like that?" because he or she knows what those symptoms have in common, but the patient might not know the relationship between those symptoms. "You can't count on the patient to tell you all the relevant information," he said. "You have to know what to ask about."

"Patients with brain disease have subtle personality changes, sometimes more obvious personality changes. These need to be inquired about," Dr. Ovsiew said. He encouraged asking "non-DSM questions" to help identify specific symptoms of a neuropsychiatric illness. "The patient with apathy has reduced negative as well as positive emotions. The patient with depression has reduced positive emotions, but often tells you very clearly about the negative emotions of sadness, guilt. The patient with depression has diurnal variation in mood, a very telling symptom, especially when it's disclosed spontaneously," Dr. Ovsiew explained. "The point is, you need to know to ask about it."

When taking a sleep history, clinicians should be aware of sleep disturbances apart from insomnia and early waking. REM sleep behavior disorder is a condition that should be inquired about. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that might not be immediately apparent to the patient, but a bed partner can identify whether a patient has problems breathing throughout the night.

"This is an important condition to uncover for the neuropsychiatrist because it contributes to treatment resistance and depression, and it contributes to cognitive impairment," Dr. Ovsiew said. "These patients commonly have mild difficulties with attention and concentration."

Always ask about head injury in every history, which can be relevant to later onset depression, PTSD, and cognitive impairment. Every head injury follows a trajectory of retrograde amnesia and altered state of consciousness (including coma), followed by a period of posttraumatic amnesia. Duration of these states can be used to assess the severity of brain injury, but the 15-point Glasgow Coma Scale is another way to assess injury severity, Dr. Ovsiew explained.

However, the two do not always overlap, he noted. "Someone may have a Glasgow Coma Scale score that is 9-12, predicting moderate brain injury, but they may have a short duration of amnesia. These don't always follow the same path. There are many different ways of classifying how severe the brain injury is."

Keep Probes Brief, Straightforward

Cognitive exams of patients with suspected psychiatric disorders should be simple, easy to administer and focused on a single domain of cognition. "Probes should be brief. They should not require specialized equipment. The Purdue Pegboard Test might be a great neuropsychological instrument, but very few of us carry a pegboard around in our medical bags," Dr. Ovsiew said.

The probe administered should also be accessible to the patient. The serial sevens clinical test, where a patient is asked to repeatedly subtract 7 from 100, is only effective at testing concentration if the patient is capable of completing the test. "There are going to be patients who can't do the task, but it's not because of concentration failure, it's because of subtraction failure," he said.

When assessing attention, effective tasks include having the patient perform the digit span test forward and backward, count backward from 20 to 1, listing the months of the year in reverse, and performing the Mental Alternation Test. However, Dr. Ovsiew explained there may be some barriers for patients in completing these tasks. "The person may be aphasic and not know the alphabet. The person may have English as a second language and not be skilled at giving the alphabet in English. In some cases, you may want to check and not assume that the patient can count and does know the alphabet."

In assessing language, listen for aphasic abnormalities. "The patient, of course, is speaking throughout the interview, but you need to take a moment to listen for prosody, to listen to rate of speech, to listen for paraphasic errors or word-finding problems," Dr. Ovsiew said. Any abnormalities should be probed further through confrontation naming tasks, which can be done in person and with some success through video, but not by phone. Naming to definition ("What do you call the part of a shirt that covers the arm?") is one way of administering the test over the phone.

Visuospatial function can be assessed by clock drawing but also carries problems. Patients who do not plan their clock before beginning to draw, for example, may have an executive function problem instead of a visuospatial problem, Dr. Ovsiew noted. Patients in whom a clinician suspects hemineglect should be given a visual search task or line by section task. "I like doing clock drawing. It's a nice screening test. It's becoming, I think, less useful as people count on digital clocks and have trouble even imagining what an analog clock looks like."

An approach that is better suited to in-person assessment, but also works by video, is the Poppelreuter figure visual perceptual function test, which is a prompt for the patient that involves common household items overlaying one another "in atypical positions and atypical configurations" where the patient is instructed to describe the items they see on the card. Another approach that works over video is the interlocking finger test, where the patient is asked to copy the hand positions made by the clinician.

Dr. Ovsiew admitted that visuospatial function is nearly impossible to assess over the phone. Asking topographical questions ("If you're driving from Chicago to Los Angeles, is the Pacific Ocean in front of you, behind you, to your left, or to your right?") may help judge visuospatial function, but this relies on the patient having the topographic knowledge to answer the questions. Some patients who are topographically disoriented can't do them at all," Dr. Ovsiew said.

Bedside neuropsychiatry assesses encoding of a memory, its retention and its retrieval as well as verbal and visual cues. Each one of these aspects of memory can be impaired on its own and should be explored separately, Dr. Ovsiew explained. "Neuropsychiatric clinicians have a rough-and-ready, seat-of-the-pants way of approaching this that wouldn't pass muster if you're a psychologist, but is the best we can do at the bedside."

To test retrieval and retention, the Three Words–Three Shapes test works well in person, with some difficulty by video, and is not possible to administer over the phone. In lieu of that test, giving the patient a simple word list and asking them to repeat the list in order. Using the word list, "these different stages of memory function can be parsed out pretty well at the bedside or chairside, and even by the phone. Figuring out where the memory failure is diagnostically important," Dr. Ovsiew said.

Executive function, which involves activation, planning, sequencing, maintaining, self-monitoring, and flexible employment of action and attention, is "complicated to evaluate because there are multiple aspects of executive function, multiple deficits that can be seen with executive dysfunction, and they don't all correlate with each other."

Within executive function evaluation, the Mental Alternation Test can assess working memory, motor sequencing can be assessed through the ring/fist, fist/edge/palm, alternating fist, and rampart tests. The Go/No-Go test can be used to assess response inhibition. For effortful retrieval evaluation, spontaneous word-list generation – such as thinking of all the items one can buy at a supermarket– can test category fluency, while a task to name all the words starting with a certain letter can assess letter stimulus.

Executive function "is of crucial importance in the neuropsychiatric evaluation because it's strongly correlated with how well the person functions outside the office," Dr. Ovsiew said.

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company. Dr. Ovsiew reported relationships with Wolters Kluwer Health in the form of consulting, receiving royalty payments, and related activities.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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