Speaking Up to Avoid Diagnostic Mistakes

According to the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF), experts estimate that up to one in every 10 diagnoses is wrong, delayed, or missed completely. What’s more, diagnostic errors may account for between as many as 80,000 deaths per year in the U.S.

Concerned about these numbers, the NPSF is encouraging healthcare providers to ensure that patients are more engaged in the healthcare process. The organization is also recommending that patients become more involved.

Paul L. Doering, M.S., emeritus distinguished service professor of pharmacotherapy and translational research, University of Florida College of Pharmacy, told Healthline that doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and pharmacists still need to do more to work together as a team.

He also said that providers need to teach consumers more about health and how to take care of their bodies. “The healthcare consumer needs to be sophisticated and take an active role in their own health,” he said. “There are still a lot of people who think they should be seen and not heard in the doctor’s office.”

In observance of National Patient Awareness Week, which runs March 2 through March 8, NPSF and the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine (SIDM) have teamed up to develop tips that will help consumers avoid diagnostic errors:

1. Tell Your Story

Be clear, complete, and accurate when you tell your healthcare provider about your illness—take time to think about when your symptoms started, what made your symptoms better or worse, and whether your symptoms were related to taking medications, eating a meal, exercising, or a certain time of day.

Write notes for your doctor if necessary, or ask a loved one to help you.

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2. Be a Historian

Remember what treatments you’ve tried in the past and whether they helped, and make sure you can explain how your illness has progressed over time. Also think about your family’s medical history and whether you may be at risk for similar illnesses.

3. Keep Good Records

Keep a record of test results, referrals, and hospital admissions. Also keep an up-to-date list of your medications, and bring the list with you each time you see your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.

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4. Be an Informed Consumer

Learn about your illness, medications, and treatments by looking at reliable sources on the Internet or at a local library—but keep in mind that not everything you read on the Internet is true. Always check with a healthcare professional before choosing alternative treatments or medications, for example.

5. Take Charge of Managing Your Health

If you see more than one doctor, make sure each doctor knows what the others are thinking and planning. Make sure that all your providers know about all your test results, medications, and other treatments.

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6. Know Your Test Results

Make sure that both you and your doctor get the results from any tests you have done. Don’t assume that no news is good news; call and check on your test results if you don’t hear anything. And if you don’t understand the results, ask what they mean and what needs to be done next.

7. Follow Up

Ask when you need to make another appointment, ask what to expect from the treatment, and make sure you understand what to do if you get new symptoms or start to feel worse.

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8. Make Sure It’s the Right Diagnosis

Sometimes your diagnosis is the most “likely” thing that is wrong, but it may not be the only thing. So don’t be afraid to ask, “What else could this be?” and encourage your doctor or nurse to think about other possible reasons for your illness.

9. Record Your Health Information and Monitor Your Progress

Consider keeping a health diary. Take notes during or after your doctor visits (or ask a loved one to take them for you). The SIDM offers a free tool that can help, the Patient Toolkit for Diagnosis.