The Most Common Mistake Doctors Make

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Misdiagnosis Biggest Threat to PatientsMost of us put our trust in our doctor’s decisions. This makes sense, as doctors are highly-trained professionals whose main expertise lies in making a proper diagnosis. When we feel ill, a doctor is supposed to be able to figure out what is wrong and then make recommendations for treatment.

But doctors are human and make mistakes. Unfortunately, one of the most common errors doctors make is to misdiagnose a condition.  A rash diagnosed as a simple skin irritation is actually a symptom of a serious bacterial infection. Or maybe a tumor goes undiagnosed or a case of fatigue is underdiagnosed as simple lack of sleep, when in fact the immune system is profoundly compromised.

In a recent study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, researchers estimated that in excess of 150,000 patients suffer permanent damage to their health—and even die—as a result of diagnostic errors each year. These medical errors are costly for everyone. Not only do patients suffer, but malpractice claims account for millions of dollars spent in compensation. Diagnostic errors are the biggest patient-safety issue currently being monitored by the healthcare community.

The silver lining in this whole story is the fact that medical errors are preventable. Steps can be taken to reduce the number of diagnostic errors that patients are potentially exposed to.

If you sometimes worry about getting a misdiagnosis from your doctor, here are five tips that could help to keep your patient-doctor relationship safe and free from errors that could harm your health.

1. Your doctor can use a computer to check your medical records and medical history. Information can be cross-checked quickly and test results can be compared.

2. Accurate testing for identifying health conditions and diseases is a must. New devices are being devised that are better able to pinpoint symptoms and gage the severity of an illness.

3. Your doctor can use online programs that tally symptoms and then make suggestions about potential diseases or health conditions. Some of these suggestions could lead your doctor in the right direction for making an accurate diagnosis.

4. Your doctor needs to keep an open mind and not necessarily settle on one diagnosis at the outset. Making multiple diagnoses could keep a doctor from being fixated on one health condition, while encouraging an open mind about other potential causes of symptoms.

5. Record your symptoms on paper, before you come for a doctor’s appointment. Be specific. Write down when you feel a symptom and what happened just before. Were you eating a particular food, performing a specific exercise? Do the symptoms change throughout the day or stay the same? What do you think is the cause of your symptoms? Forming and recording these answers on paper could help steer you and your doctor in the right direction when it comes to making a correct diagnosis while under time pressure.

After an initial appointment is completed, make sure you follow-up with any referrals you get to see a specialist. Specialists are trained in specific areas of medicine and can look at your symptoms in a unique way that is different from your GP. Once you have completed additional diagnostic testing and procedures, your doctor needs to coordinate results from specialists and communicate these accurately and clearly to you in a timely fashion. There has been a push to cut back on “unnecessary” testing to avoid escalating healthcare costs. However, sometimes, a certain set of symptoms requires the diagnostic tools of a specialist and these tests are legitimate and need to be performed.

Work with your doctor to make sure you get to the root of your health problems and obtain the proper diagnosis that can lead to effective treatment.

Landro, L., “The Biggest Mistake Doctors Make,” The Wall Street Journal web site, Nov. 17, 2013;, last accessed Nov. 29, 2013.
Hassan, I.S., “Cognitive schemes and strategies in diagnostic and therapeutic decision making: a primer for trainees,” Perspect Med Educ. November 2013; 2(5-6): 321-31.