Questions to ask to help avoid misdiagnosis

June 11, 2019 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD

One of the most important skills your doctor has is listening. He or she should take time to talk with you not only about symptoms you’re experiencing, but about the story behind those symptoms. But sometimes doctors are pressed for time or are used to asking their patients a series of yes or no questions. Unfortunately, not getting the full story can increase the risk of misdiagnosis or receiving inappropriate care.

To help lower the risk of misdiagnosis, it’s important to advocate for yourself and ask questions that can help you get the information you need. Here’s what you should ask:

  • What could be the underlying cause of my symptoms? Rather than asking your doctor what your diagnosis is, ask about the possible causes for your symptoms. This starts a broader discussion that isn’t limited to a single diagnosis.
  • What tests should I have to help narrow down the underlying cause of my symptoms? If your doctor gives you a diagnosis based solely on the symptoms you’ve described, ask if there any tests that could help provide more information and help make sure there’s not another unconsidered or less common cause for your symptoms.
  • What is the range of treatment options I should consider for my condition? Asking your doctor about all possible appropriate treatments for your condition shows you the spectrum of options, from the least high impact (like a change in diet or activity or physical therapy) to higher impact options like medication and surgery. That can help you make a more informed medical decision based on your own preferences and concerns.
  • What outcome should I expect from this treatment? It’s important to understand what the likely outcome of your treatment will be. You may think that after having back surgery you’ll feel 100% better after recovery, while your doctor’s definition of successful treatment is a small improvement in your range of motion or reduction in your pain.
  • What are the potential side effects of treatment or the treatment’s potential impact on my quality of life? Knowing what the possible side effects of treatment are can help you decide if the relief you’ll get from your symptoms is worth the discomfort or decrease in quality of life you may experience during treatment.
  • What clinical evidence is there to support this treatment? There should be more than anecdotal evidence that a treatment is effective. There should be evidence from double-blind clinical studies. For example, if you’re considering stem cell-based treatment for knee pain, ask what studies have been done that show the treatment is effective and safe.
  • Are there any questions I should have asked but didn’t? You’re not as well versed in medical care as your doctor is, so there may be issues to consider that you’re not aware of. This open-ended question gives your doctor a chance to think about and share those issues with you. You may have discussed the physical aspects of a treatment, but not the potential emotional ones for example.

As your appointment is coming to an end, it’s also helpful to share with the doctor what you understood him or her to say. It’s an opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings and ask for clarification if you need it. And if your doctor recommends surgery or diagnoses you with a serious condition, it’s wise to seek a second opinion, which can help reduce your risk of misdiagnosis, ensure you understand all your options and, in some cases, may change your diagnosis and treatment recommendations.