Understanding Diagnostic Errors from Your Doctor

Doctor with Patient

Doctors typically hold a high place of esteem amongst the general population. They’re respected for their advanced education as well as for their service to the community. Yet their education is only a part of their training; years of clinical study help to bolster their knowledge of those areas in which they practice. With all of these opportunities to develop their diagnostic skills, one may think it to be near impossible for a doctor to offer up an incorrect diagnosis.

Anyone holding to that belief would be deeply disappointed to hear some of the very legitimate complaints lodged by patients against doctors who they believe misdiagnosed them. Typically, it’s difficult for an injury or an ailment to go undiagnosed. Yet the danger in a misdiagnosis is that such an error often leads to a delay in treatment that can have a dramatic effect on the health of a patient.

Some Common Diagnostic Mistakes

Diagnostic technologies in the healthcare industry have made great strides in recent years. Yet these advanced tools cannot completely eliminate human error from the complicated equation of diagnosing a patient. While no doctor ever wants to get a diagnosis wrong, there are some common diagnostic mistakes that one can easily fall into. Some of these include: Poor communication: Unless he or she has been endowed with some superhero-like x-ray vision, a doctor cannot see exactly what’s going inside of a patient during an initial evaluation. Even with the many diagnostic tools at his or her disposal, it’s from the questions that he or she asks regarding the patient’s symptoms that he or she begins the formulations of a preliminary diagnosis. It’s also from this initial evaluation that the seeds of a majority of incorrect diagnoses are planted.

Incorrect assumptions from patient medical history: While the questions asked during an initial patient evaluation give an indication of a patient’s current problem, his or her doctor will also rely on his or her medical history in determining a diagnosis. Incorrect assumptions based off of patient medical histories are believed by some to account for more than 75% of incorrect diagnoses.

Lack of time: 

The current demand in healthcare is that better service be given in a shorter amount of time. However, these two desires are often mutually exclusive. While no doctor wants to keep a patient on the exam table any longer than he or she has to, some cases may require extra time to determine exactly what’s wrong. The lack of that extra time may keep a doctor from exploring other possible causes of a patient’s pain and instead focus solely on his or her preliminary diagnosis in order to keep a visit short.

Misinterpretations of imaging studies: 

While the science behind imaging studies today allows doctors a clearer picture of their patients’ internal structures than that which was available to their predecessors, those pictures can still be difficult to discern. A recent study conducted in Norway showed that the 3.1% of fractures that were misdiagnosed during initial emergency room visits were due to x-ray misinterpretations. Of those misdiagnosed fractures, 28% occurred in the ankle or foot.

Understanding the limitations that doctors face should encourage patients to become more involved in their healthcare. They know their bodies better than anyone, and are more familiar with the pains that they’re experiencing from their fractures than the doctors trying to diagnose them. This makes maintaining clear communication between doctor and patient all the more important. When both sides work together, there’s little that they can’t overcome.

*image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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