When you feel sick, tired, or anxious, you likely trust your doctor to provide the right treatment. He may recommend that you take a prescription medication. Or she may tell you to drink plenty of fluids and make a few changes in your diet.
But according to a study published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety, approximately 12 million adults (or 1 out of every 20 patients) receive a misdiagnosis from their medical provider every year.
The authors in the study note, "About one-half of diagnostic errors have the potential to lead to severe harm." And Dr. Jon LaPook, chief medical correspondent for CBS News adds, "Doctors' visits these days tend to be rushed . . . That's a big problem."
So what can you do to ensure your next visit goes smoothly?
1. State Your Symptoms Accurately, Clearly, and Completely
Although your doctor can probe and prod you for hours, only you can notice every symptom you have. And these symptoms help your doctor determine which condition you've developed.
As you meet with your doctor, take the time to describe:
When your symptoms started
What factors made your symptoms better or worse
Which medications you take
What foods and drinks you consume
How much exercise you perform
If you worry that you can't keep track of important details, write everything down as they occur. Be as precise as you can.
For example, if you experience stomach pain, mention whether you feel a shooting pain, sharp pain, or dull ache. Does it come and go? Do you take anything to ease that pain? Or if you had a regular migraines, tell your doctor the times they occurred, how long they lasted, whether you saw any auras, or if taking ibuprofen helped.
2. Gather as Much Information as You Can
Your doctor may represent a wealth of knowledge and experience, but this doesn't mean you can't be an expert too.
Learn as much information about your symptoms via reliable online sources or library books. Discover any side effects that may come from the medications you take, or find useful facts about the medical tests you've taken in the past.
Additionally, go through your family tree and look for any common diseases and conditions. Ask your relatives whether you've suffered from heart disease, depression, or even cancer. Then tell your doctor about any relevant information you've uncovered.
3. Don't Draw Your Own Conclusions
As you research your condition and symptoms, don't jump the gun and self-diagnose your condition. Just because you read about headaches on WebMD.com doesn't mean you almost certainly have a brain tumor.
Similarly, if you experience ear pain, you don't want to tell your doctor that you clearly have an ear infection. "You're excluding other causes of ear pain, such as TMJ or tooth abscess," explains Dr. Caroline Abruzese, president of Personalized Healthcare in Atlanta. And if you dismiss other possibilities, your doctor may too. "Accurate but incomplete information is better than definitive but potentially wrong."
Instead, allow your doctor to sort through the information you've given to determine a treatment. He may confirm your suspicions about a specific condition, or she may decide that you have an entirely different problem.
4. Verify Your Medical Test Results
Once your doctor suspects you have a certain illness, he or she may recommend that you undergo a series of medical tests to ensure accuracy. Blood results, MRIs, and CAT scans can reveal underlying problems that the average eye cannot.
However, even lab technicians can make a mistake. Blood vials can become contaminated. Imaging machines might need recalibration. Tissue biopsies might be swapped with those of another patient's.
If you've maintained relatively good health, only to have a blood test say you've become anemic in the last few months, have the doctor run another test. Make sure you receive a copy of the test results, and ask for any clarification about what certain scores mean.
Also, you shouldn't assume "no news is good news." Sometimes papers get lost in the shuffle, so check in with your doctor to see what you should do next.
5. Ask for a Second Opinion
Once your doctor has settled on a diagnosis and has recommended a treatment, don't hesitate to ask for a second opinion. In many cases, a second opinion will simply confirm the original diagnosis.
Dr. Charles Cutler, MD, and chair of the American College of Physicians' Board of Governors explains, "Good doctors are not threatened by a second opinion. In fact, they're strengthened by it."
Did You Receive a Misdiagnosis?
Despite your best efforts, your doctor (or doctors) may still make a mistake. If you feel that misdiagnosis caused you additional pain, worsened your current condition, or caused you unnecessary stress, talk with a lawyer. He or she can help you seek restitution for medical malpractice.