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Diagnostic Errors: Understanding Misdiagnoses And How To Help Prevent Them

By Martine Ehrenclou, M.A.

A diagnostic error, or misdiagnosis, occurs when a medical professional inaccurately comes to a conclusion about what is wrong with the patient. About 1 in 20 in-patient hospital deaths are attributed to misdiagnosed illness. In or outside of the hospital, about 1 in 6 of us throughout our lifetime will be subjected to a misdiagnosis by a medical professional.

Why Diagnostic Errors Occur

There are several reasons diagnostic errors can occur, including:

  • "Premature closure"—a failure on the part of the medical professional to consider all possible diagnoses.
  • When lab test results are not ordered or followed up on.
  • When patients see several different health care providers who do not communicate with one another.
  • When patients do not provide a complete health summary and history.

10 Tips To Help Prevent Diagnostic Errors

  1. Your parent needs you as an advocate if he or she is visiting the doctor or is in the hospital. You are a second set of eyes and ears and can help distill information that may be difficult to digest. Ask for a diagnosis from your parent's doctor. Ask for the name of the condition that is suspected. Ask for the reasons this particular diagnosis is suspected.
  2. Ask the doctor if there are any other possible diagnoses for what your parent has.
  3. Take notes on conversations with physicians, whether your parent is in a doctor's office or in the hospital.
  4. Create a list of all your parent's symptoms. Record the time of day the symptoms occur and what makes them better or worse. List what your parent has tried to make the symptoms better.
  5. Create a brief, recent medical history if your parent is seeing a new doctor or is in the hospital. Write down your mother or father's current medications and their dosages, over-the-counter medications and supplements, and allergies to medications. List their current and recent past medical conditions and surgeries. Obtain copies of their recent test results. Make a copy of all of this so you present a packet of information for each and every doctor you see with your parent. This prevents the problem of misplaced or lost medical records.
  6. Follow up on your parent's test results. If hospitalized, ask your parent's doctors for test results. Write down the names of the tests and results. If your parent sees a doctor for an office visit, be sure to go along and ask for copies of the test results.
  7. Research your parent's condition or diagnostic tests online or at your local library.
  8. Get a second opinion. Whether in the hospital or a doctor's office, get a second opinion. You can ask the doctor your parent is seeing for a referral. Or you can ask friends and family members for their recommendations. A third option is to ask a nurse in the emergency room of your local hospital for referrals.
  9. Ask for lab tests to be repeated. Doctors can make mistakes, but so can radiologists, pathologists and other lab technicians.
  10. Speak up. Ask questions. Research. Many of us are nervous or anxious when talking with our doctors or other medical professionals. Remember that your parent knows their body best and the more information you help them gather and contribute, the more confident you and your parent will feel.