Why You Shouldn’t Always Take Your Doctor’s Word For It

Getting the wrong diagnosis for a health problem can have negative and even extremely harmful consequences to your health and wellbeing. Misdiagnosis, also referred to as wrong diagnosis, is more common than you’d think.

According to a new report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, most people will experience at least one inaccurate or delayed diagnosis in their lifetimes. That translates to millions of people, some of whom are suffering the consequences of wrong diagnosis — yet not much is being done within professional health settings to correct the problem. Luckily, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk.

The diagnosis problem

The broadest problem with medical diagnosis is the specificity into which signs and symptoms are funneled. A headache can’t just be a “headache,” but is rather defined as a “migraine,” “cluster” or other specific type. And a painful ankle can’t just be “a painful ankle,” but rather must be diagnosed as a “strain,” “sprain,” or “arthritic” and so on.

The method seems logical. After all, you do want the most specific treatment for the issue at hand, and a specific diagnosis will lead the provider to offer specific recommendations and medications.

But the reality is most things need to be defined so narrowly and treated so specifically for there to be a change for the better. What’s more, the new report, Improving Diagnosis in Health Care, tells how and why misdiagnosis and wrong-diagnosis happen so often and why it’s now a serious risk factor is patient wellness that must be dealt with. According to the report:

“Inaccurate or delayed diagnoses persist throughout all settings of care and continues to harm an unacceptable number of patients. It is likely that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences. Diagnostic errors can lead to negative health outcomes, psychological distress, and financial costs. If a diagnostic error occurs, inappropriate or unnecessary treatment may be given to a patient or appropriate (and potentially lifesaving) treatment may be withheld or delayed.”

Report findings

There are several huge takeaways from this report. Foremost is that there is a big problem with medical diagnostic error and that this error is not getting the attention or correction it requires. According to the report authors, the reason for this is that data on diagnostic errors are not well kept or documented. Diagnoses are often simple amended or changed and not reported as errors, more often only being identified as such in retrospect.

Another key finding is that diagnosis is mainly kept within the domain of the medical professionals, whereas the patients themselves need be part of the process. After all, it is the patient who must know when to seek medical attention, and how to explain what is happening to their medical professional. Thus, a partnership must happen between patient and doctor. Moreover, physicians must learn to listen more carefully and release their arrogance at knowing it all. Instead, they should hear what the patient is telling them and ask for the opinions of others.

Wider collaboration is missing and needed, as healthcare professionals often don’t share information about patients or seek opinions of colleagues. Per the report, “The complexity of health and disease, and the increasing complexity of health care, demands collaboration and teamwork among and between health care professionals, as well as with patients and their families.”

Report conclusions

After reviewing the data the committee offered several essential conclusions within the report:

  • Urgent change is needed to address the issue of diagnostic error, which poses a major challenge to health care quality.
  • Diagnostic errors persist throughout all settings of care, involve common and rare diseases, and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients.
  • Yet, diagnosis—and, in particular, the occurrence of diagnostic errors—is not a major focus in health care practice or research.
  • The result of this inattention is significant: It is likely that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences.

Avoiding wrong diagnosis

How can you avoid falling victim to wrong diagnosis? Don’t be afraid to engage your doctor in dialogue. Never be intimidated about asking questions or refusing to take the information provided at face value. Doctors are human beings too, and are not above misunderstanding or mistakes.

Sitting back and relying on diagnostics tests instead of engaging in back and forth conversation with your doctor can go very wrong. Tests do not always get to the root cause, but looking at test results alongside valuable patient-provided information could be much more helpful.

And, of course, I believe that stepping outside of conventional medicine is also beneficial. Next week I want to explain how a Traditional Chinese Medicine approach can work much better by using a full-body approach to wellness.




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  • Posted 8 years ago

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