When people aren’t feeling well or are having unusual symptoms and need answers, one of the first places they go is to their trusted doctor. Doctors are experts and can be relied on to provide medical advice and treatment. But what happens if the treatment isn’t working and you feel as if you’ve been misdiagnosed?

Misdiagnosis is not uncommon in medical practice, but it is not necessarily the result of an incompetent or uncaring doctor. Many times patients will visit doctors with vague symptoms like nausea and fatigue or a sense of just not feeling well. Even with blood tests and a physical exam, these vague symptoms could lead to any number of diagnoses. Here’s how you can visit your doctor armed with the tools to help him or her to make the right diagnosis.

Go prepared to prevent being misdiagnosed

If you are feeling symptoms like nausea or fatigue, make them as specific as possible. Those two symptoms alone are not enough to make an accurate diagnosis. You want to have as much detail as possible when you see your doctor.

An example of specific questions to answer for these two symptoms before you go to the doctor might be the following:

  • Have you actually vomited in the past 24 hours? How often?
  • Is nausea accompanied by a fever or chills?
  • Have you traveled anywhere outside of the country?
  • Have you eaten out or eaten anything unusual?
  • Has there been a significant change in lifestyle (e.g., a move, a new baby)?

Write down your symptoms before you go to the doctor, and any concerns that you have, so that you will remember what you want to say. This step is crucial for accuracy.

Charles Cutler, MD, an internist from Norristown, Pa., and chair of the American College of Physicians’ Board of Governors says that this can make the difference in a diagnosis:

“You’d be surprised how frequently patients come to me and then maybe an hour later, I learn ‘oh I forgot to tell you something’ and that thing they forgot is really important.”

If you are seeing multiple doctors, be prepared for that, too

If you have a visit with a specialist scheduled, gather all of the health information you have so far and take it with you, or be sure to sign a medical release so the specialist can access your records. Not only will this help increase the chances of an accurate diagnosis, but it may also prevent repetitive testing (i.e., taking the same X-ray twice). Many doctors and health systems now use computerized notes and can print out a copy of your visit record along with any diagnosis you have received previously.

Bring all medications (including any herbs or supplements)

Don’t just bring one of each pill; bring the entire bottle that the pill comes in. Medications can be mixed up in a pharmacy, the dosages may be incorrect, or you may be taking less than you are prescribed because you don’t want to take too many pills.

While limiting the number of prescription medications you put into your body in an attempt to focus on more natural herbs and supplements can be a good thing under the proper care and supervision, in general, all medications prescribed by a doctor should be taken in the exact manner as they are prescribed. The only leeway in dosing comes for medications taken “as needed,” with that notation clearly on the bottle.

Bringing in your prescription bottles can help doctors see if perhaps your symptoms are caused by a drug interaction or improper dosing.

Do your research, but keep your conclusions to yourself

There are many tools on the internet that help patients look up symptoms and get some idea of what diagnosis their symptoms might indicate. The vast majority of doctors in the U.S. are thrilled to have patients who take the time to research their symptoms, but it’s important to let the doctor diagnose after that. If you have a severe headache that has lingered for many days and you proclaim that it’s a migraine, the doctor may focus only on that. This can be dangerous if the headache is a symptom of something more serious.

Definitely research your symptoms so you know what questions to ask, certainly take a look at your diagnosis after your visit, but try not to self-diagnose when you are in the doctor’s office.

Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion

When you receive a diagnosis and a treatment plan, be sure to ask your doctor what to expect from medications and treatments, including side effects and how long it should take to see improvement. Other questions to ask could include:

  • Ask if the doctor is certain in their diagnosis and if there is a differential diagnosis (something else that it could be)
  • If there is a differential diagnosis, ask why your doctor believes it is one thing and not the other
  • Ask what data was used to make the diagnosis
  • Ask about specialists and if they might have another view that is worth hearing

Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion, especially if treatment is highly invasive or the condition is very serious or chronic. Doctors are used to being asked for a second opinion and will have recommendations for specialists or other doctors for you to see. Take a friend or family member to the second opinion so that they can write down whatever diagnosis, advice, or treatment options are explained.

If you are misdiagnosed, it is not necessarily as a result of a negligent doctor or medical malpractice. If you feel like your relationship with your doctor is a good one, talk to them about your options, including further testing or a specialist referral.

If you feel like your concerns are not being heard or they are being dismissed outright, it may be time to find a new doctor or medical practice. If you do switch doctors, sending a note to your previous doctor outlining your concerns may help them to grow as a professional. Doctors are human beings, too, and feedback that is geared towards growth is always appreciated. If it seems that your doctor has been truly negligent in his or her care, there are steps to address those concerns as well.

Have you or a loved one ever been misdiagnosed? How did you handle it?

Image by Adrian Clark via Flickr

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