An important study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that misdiagnosis is more common than you might think. According to the study, almost 40% of patients who unexpectedly returned after an initial primary care visit had been misdiagnosed. Almost 80% of the misdiagnoses were tied to problems in doctor-patient communication, and more than half of those problems had to do with things that were missed in the patient’s medical history.
The results of this study shouldn’t be surprising – they are another example of a system that isn’t working as well as it could for patients, and doctors. Doctors – and the medical professionals who help them in their work – are the best educated and best trained than they have ever been. They have more access to medical information and technology than at any time in our history. And yet, U.S. government data show that the typical doctor visit involves 15 minutes or less with your doctor. Medical records are kept in fragmented, uncoordinated ways.
Never before have the stakes of getting the right diagnosis been so high, and yet our system is set up in a way that makes it increasingly difficult for doctors to do the jobs they were trained to do. Seeing 40 patients a day, using uncoordinated medical records systems, and trying to keep up with continual advances in medicine is an enormous challenge under the best of circumstances. And these aren’t the best of circumstances. As the study authors point out, the greatest underlying cause is the failure to properly put together the pieces of a patient’s medical condition- exactly the type of thing you’d expect from people making high stakes decisions with not enough time or information.
The findings of this and other research underscore how important it is for patients to be active participants in their care, and to use every resource at their disposal to make sure they are not one of these many who are misdiagnosed. Ask questions, know your family (and personal) history, and make sure you keep asking questions until you’re satisfied you are comfortable with what you are being told.
By involving yourself as an engaged, active part of your own care, you have a chance to help your clinical team avoid overlooking important facts, to help them avoid unwarranted assumptions, and to help them make sure they make the best decisions for you, with you.
Evan Falchuk is vice-chairman, Best Doctors.