The risk of a medical misdiagnosis is a serious threat. Several studies have highlighted this risk, including an Institute of Medicine study that found that approximately 12 million people in the U.S. who seek outpatient medical care will experience some form of diagnostic error each year.
A misdiagnosis may occur for a number of reasons:
- Health records can be incomplete or fragmented. Physicians may not have access to your complete medical record or family history. That means they can miss risk factors, test results, and previously reported medical problems and symptoms that could help them make an accurate diagnosis.
- Your physician may not be experienced diagnosing and treating your condition. If you have a complex or uncommon medical condition, not every physician has the experience and expertise to make the correct diagnosis.
- Many conditions share symptoms. Distinguishing the root cause of common symptoms like fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, and cognitive problems can be complex because a wide range of diseases share these symptoms. There are no specific diagnostic tests to confirm a diagnosis for many conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and fibromyalgia.
These three factors play a role in five commonly misdiagnosed conditions:
- Autoimmune conditions – including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus – which may be misdiagnosed as depression, viral illness, and Lyme disease
- Lyme disease, which may be misdiagnosed as mononucleosis, flu, and depression
- Migraine, which may be misdiagnosed as a brain tumor, aneurysm, and stroke
- Stroke in patients under age 50, which may be misdiagnosed as migraine and vertigo
- Several types of cancer, including lymphoma, bladder cancer, sarcomas, and multiple myeloma
How to protect yourself against misdiagnosis
One of the most valuable things you can do to guard against misdiagnosis is to be an engaged and informed patient. Come to your appointment with a list of symptoms, what diagnostic testing you’ve undergone, your family and personal medical history, and a list of any medications you take. A personal health advisor can also be a valuable resource and can accompany you to your appointment and help provide the needed information and ask questions.
When you receive a diagnosis from your doctor, ask these questions:
- What information led you to my diagnosis and how confident are you in this diagnosis?
- Is there any information in my medical history that does not fit with the diagnosis?
- What other condition could reasonably be the cause of my symptoms?
- Are there any additional diagnostic tests that could confirm or change my diagnosis?
Especially if you are diagnosed with a serious, complex, or rare condition, your next step should be to seek a second opinion from a physician who has broad experience treating the condition. For a cancer diagnosis, it can be helpful to get a second reading of imaging studies and biopsies by an experienced radiologist and pathologist. If surgery is recommended, it can be helpful to also seek a second opinion from a non-surgical specialist who may suggest other treatment options.