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Misdiagnosis: When you pay the price for your doctor's oversight

Misdiagnosis. It shouldn't happen, but, unfortunately, it does, and on an alarmingly frequent basis. When it occurs, it's obviously a problem because before you can get the proper treatment you need, you need doctors to identify the illness you have. The issue goes beyond that, though. In America, approximately 12 million people receive incorrect diagnoses every year, and about 50 percent of the time, that incorrect diagnosis can result in serious harm.

Not only does a misdiagnosis delay recovery of the disease you do have, but it sometimes results in unnecessary treatments that can be dangerous, if not fatal. In fact, for the over 40,000 patients in intensive care units annually, that misdiagnosis may cost them not just their health but their lives. Incorrect diagnoses frequently mean costly surgeries and unnecessary painful procedures. Even when you're lucky enough to survive the misdiagnosis, the delay in receiving correct treatment can mean months of pain, if not years, or potentially even permanent disability.

Common Misdiagnoses

The failure to accurately diagnose your medical condition or the misdiagnosis of your illness by a trained and experienced health care professional should be unthinkable, yet it still happens regularly. The problem is that far too often you, the patient, end up paying the cost – be it physically, mentally or financially – for the physician's error or negligence in mistaking commonly misdiagnosed conditions such as:

  • Endometriosis: About 2/3 of women with endometriosis are initially misdiagnosed.
  • Celiac disease: An estimated 83 percent of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other symptoms.
  • Lyme disease: The most common test for Lyme disease has a 35 percent chance of missing the disease.

Other commonly misdiagnosed illnesses and conditions include cancer, heart attacks and strokes, birth defects, depression and fibromyalgia, but sadly these are just a few of the health problems that physicians may fail to properly diagnosis due to negligence or error. Perhaps even more upsettingly, much of the time, mistakes are avoidable; one study found that a whopping 96 percent of doctors believe a majority of diagnostics errors are preventable.

What can you do?

Frighteningly, misdiagnoses occur even more frequently than reported. While it's not your job as the patient to prevent physician error, there are some things you can do that may help decrease the likelihood of misdiagnosis. During your appointment, you should feel free to:

  • Write down questions and ask the doctor to clarify anything you don't understand.
  • Take along blood work and lab results from other health care providers.
  • Bring a copy of your medical history and any current health conditions and concerns.
  • Keep a list of the medications you are currently taking.

If you receive a diagnosis for a serious illness, you may wish to consider seeking a second opinion or even requesting a referral to a specialist whose practice focuses on your diagnosed condition. While it is the doctor's job – not yours! – to make sure you receive the correct diagnosis, the bottom line will always be your health and well-being. Better safe than sorry!

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