How you can help your doctor diagnose you


One of the first things they teach in medical school is that if you haven’t pretty much figured out the diagnosis by the time the patient finishes sharing their history, your doctor hasn’t done his or her job well.  Certainly, this is a bit of an exaggeration, as many diseases cause similar symptoms.

As you share your background, your doctor is creating a list of possibilities of the most likely conditions causing your problem.  Testing is often needed to verify the diagnosis and direct proper therapy.  But the fact of the matter remains that a good history, supplemented by a careful physical examination, informs the diagnosis about 85%of the time.

That means that the information you share as a patient is the most powerful key to unlock your diagnosis.

So, what can you do to inform and share your most valuable tool and improve the chances that your medical visits will be of the most value?

1. Prepare to share. Prepare before you go.  Make a list of all the things worrying you on paper or in your head.

  • Do not factor out anything just because you think it may be irrelevant. What you discount out may be essential to your diagnosis.
  • Often people now do online research and arrive at their appointments with a narrowed list of symptoms that support a pre-conceived answer. This may lead your doctor to jump to the wrong conclusion prematurely.

2. Pay attention to your body. Pay close attention to what you are feeling. Spend a few minutes thinking about a description for each thing — either on paper or in your head.

  • Is that pain — sharp or a dull ache?
  • What kinds of activities trigger your symptoms? Is there anything that makes it better or worse?
  • What color is the fluid you are seeing? Is it thick or thin?
  • Whatever the symptom, do you have it all the time? How long does it last? Does it bother you at night when you go to sleep?

3. Make an appointment. If something is bothering you, don’t wait. Make sure that you get to share this information with your doctor.  Be open to questions they may ask to clarify what you are telling them and to explore what may be wrong.

4. Ask, ask, ask. It is important to ask questions and to be a partner in your care.

  • Ask your doctor or health care provider what they are thinking about in their diagnosis and if they have any other options that they are thinking about (i.e., a differential diagnosis).
  • Make sure you understand the purpose of any planned tests or treatments, especially if the diagnosis is uncertain. Understanding these things will make you a better partner in your health care.

5. Next steps. Make sure to understand what your next steps are.

  • Ask about the kinds of physical signs (changes in your body) and symptoms (things you feel) that should trigger a call to your doctor. This is important, because sometimes you know something is wrong before it fully blossoms.
  • Symptoms and signs that don’t “fit” with the leading diagnosis and are not known side effects of treatment may signal that a new approach is needed.

And most importantly, be your own advocate.  If you do not feel that you are being heard, call your health care provider’s office and ask for a call or a follow-up visit. Sometimes a quick call with a nurse or physician’s assistant is all that’s needed to clarify matters and give you the comfort of knowing that you are being well cared-for.

And remember that the information you share is the most powerful clue to a proper diagnosis. Find your voice and share it.

Raissa Hacohen is co-founder and CEO, CareNav, a network of experienced nurses available for one-on-one virtual consultations to empower and facilitate the health care experience of patients, caregivers, and their families.

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