Dr. Peterson is Medical Director of the Whittemore-Peterson Institute for Neuro Immune Disease at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno – now under construction. While this state-of-the-art center for research, education, and patient care won’t be completed until 2010, work is in full swing at Dr. Peterson’s medical offices (Sierra Internal Medicine Associates) in Incline Village, Nevada.
On first impression, Dan Peterson, MD, appears quiet and mild mannered – even self-effacing and detached. It’s only on longer acquaintance that you glimpse the steely determination and vast compassion that lie beneath. The tenacious spirit and depth of compassion have been vital to keep this pioneering ME/CFS physician in the field, because the obstacles he’s endured would have been too great or too many for someone made of lesser stuff.
Dr. Peterson, together with Dr. Paul Cheney, MD, was among the first to identify what came to be called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the United States. In 1984 in their Incline Village, Nevada, internal medicine practice, a few cases of what they initially thought was a persistent viral infection became 150 cases of something that lingered – zapping patients with a host of disabling symptoms. This cluster of cases garnered attention not only from the media, who speculated about an epidemic, but also from disease detectives from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
The CDC’s initial dismissive reaction to the illness, and the careless and insensitive coverage of CFS by some media, contributed to a cultural response to this illness that became the first major obstacle to effectively helping CFS patients.
Today, in Dr. Peterson’s opinion, “Among patients and their families, and researchers at the CDC and in the field, there is much greater recognition that CFS is real and worthy of attention. The legal system has come a long way too. I find that more disability judges are familiar with CFS and willing to grant disability to patients. But I’m very frustrated that there hasn’t been more improvement in the general public’s response to CFS.”
By far, however, Dr. Peterson believes the group that’s least receptive is healthcare professionals. “Physicians are still incredibly resistant to treating CFS, or taking on patients,” he says. “I still hear a lot of disdain from other physicians.”
Dr. Peterson believes the underlying reasons are far more complex than the fact that many healthcare providers still don’t acknowledge ME/CFS as a real biological illness. “Even physicians who do believe it is real don’t want to handle this patient population. They become frustrated with not being able to help patients enough, and so they disconnect from patients and this illness,” he observes.
Adding to a lack of professional fulfillment are the realities of managed care. ME/CFS “is not very amenable to primary care and the way medicine is practiced today,” Dr. Peterson says: “The average time a physician can spend with a patient has decreased to seven minutes, and with this disease that simply isn’t enough. It is too complex and doesn’t fit the cookbook type of protocols or algorithms for managed care that characterize clinical medicine today.”
Thus, financial realities discourage physicians from taking on more than one or two ME/CFS or Fibromyalgia patients. Clinicians can’t charge or be reimbursed for the actual amount of time it takes to deal with these patients.
For his part, Dr. Peterson continues seeing patients and persists in the study of ME/CFS causes and treatments, which will be an important focus of the Whittemore-Peterson Institute’s work. He was a pioneer, for example, in trials of Ampligen™, a drug originally designed to treat retroviral infections that has helped relieve symptoms for some, and he has been studying the possible role of Human Herpes virus 6 (HHV-6) in ME/CFS.
So this man of steel, this man of compassion, this ME/CFS pioneer, has not wasted his life or his talents. He has dedicated his life to helping patients, and they love him for it.