When a healthcare provider considers a patient's symptoms of illness or injury, reviews the evidence, but arrives at the wrong conclusion about the name or source of that illness or injury, a misdiagnosis results.
That incorrect conclusion may stem from faulty medical test data, incomplete information reported by the patient, or even lack of knowledge on the part of the diagnostician, usually a doctor. A report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2005 suggested that most misdiagnoses result from "premature closure;" that is, doctors jump to conclusions too quickly, and don't consider all the possibilities that would lead to correct answers.
Sometimes simply referred to as "diagnostic errors," misdiagnosis happens more frequently than most patients realize. A review of several studies by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality states that between 10 and 30% of all diagnoses in the US are wrong. Other experts put the rate of misdiagnosis closer to 40%.
Misdiagnosis can lead to poor treatment choices, advancing illness or even death.
Consider these forms of misdiagnosis:
- The wrong name is given to an illness or injury.
In this case, the treatment recommendation could also be wrong, resulting in further illness or debilitation. The treatment the patient really needs, which would result from a correct diagnosis, is delayed or never takes place.
- The patient is told nothing is wrong even though symptoms suggest otherwise.
This is the situation for a patient who goes undiagnosed, also called "failure to diagnose." Too often, a frustrated doctor will simply dismiss a patient's symptoms telling her the symptoms are all in her head. This case may also lead to lack of treatment for a real medical problem, and no relief of symptoms.
- The patient is told there is a problem, but no medical problem really exists.
This is similar to the first case, but varies in that the patient is not really sick or injured, and may receive treatment when no treatment is necessary. (This is the form of misdiagnosis your friendly patient empowerment guide suffered.)
How Can Patients Protect Themselves from Misdiagnosis?
Too often patients expect their doctors to know all the answers about every possible disease, condition or injury. When there is clear evidence, like test results, then doctors can usually be more accurate. But many diagnoses are based on a combination of evidence and a doctor's ability, or a doctor's ability only.
Wise patients will participate in the diagnosing process:
- Ask your doctor, "What else can it be?" You want to know all the possibilities so you can research them all after your appointment.
- Get a second opinion. Even if you are quite sure of the diagnosis, it makes sense to get a second opinion if your treatment will be at all invasive, difficult, or will last a long time.
- Research the information the doctor provides to you. Get names of possible diagnoses and look them up on the Internet to be sure they are clear to you, and that your symptoms actually match the diagnosis the doctor has given you.
- Trust your intuition. If you think the doctor has diagnosed you incorrectly, look for evidence to support your feelings, and discuss them with your doctor. Gather additional evidence by getting your tests redone and/or by getting a second opinion. Even if your intuition is only wishful thinking, the additional evidence will help you convince yourself that your doctor's diagnosis is correct.