Depending on the generation you grew up in and the value system you’ve since adopted, your view on the authority of doctors and other medical professionals may differ from that of your neighbors or colleagues. While some regard their doctor as the sole decision-maker in choices about their healthcare, others have learned to take a more active role in helping their medical providers to make the best possible decisions. And it’s been proven smart to do so—a study by the National Patient Safety Foundation found that of those reporting a medical mistake, 40% reported a “misdiagnosis or treatment error.”
When it comes to your doctor’s ability to diagnose your condition, the details about your symptoms that you are able to provide play a pivotal role in your doctor’s ability to understand your situation. Partnering with your doctor through effective communication can thus increase your chances of receiving an accurate diagnosis. It can also save time and expense that might otherwise be wasted on unnecessary diagnostic tests, or from being sent to the wrong specialists.
But what kinds of information are the most helpful to assist your physician in figuring out how best to diagnose and treat you? Consider the following suggestions:
Provide the basics—in detail. Your doctor needs to know, as specifically as possible, about your symptoms, the length of time you’ve noticed them, and any circumstances that preceded their arrival. For example, instead of just saying something hurts, use a scale between 1 and 10 to describe the level of pain. Don’t just say you’ve had symptoms “for a while”—say something more concrete like “since last Thursday after exercising.”
Write it down. Take time before meeting with your doctor to think through exactly what you’ve experienced, and make sure you can describe what you’re feeling. Writing down your list of symptoms, as well as a list of what questions you have, can help you to remember everything. In addition to bringing these lists to your appointment, bring a notebook and write down specific points or instructions that your doctor tells you so that you don’t forget any crucial details.
Do some research. Although you’ll always want to check your facts with your doctor, it can help to do your homework before your appointment. Learning common causes of your symptoms, as well as tests, prevention, and who is most commonly at risk for them, might help you frame your discussion with your doctor. Some health plans provide subscribers with books, websites, or other resources to help patients identify symptoms of common conditions.
An example of the types of details to focus on when doing your research is described in a recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (November 2, 2010), which highlights four commonly misdiagnosed conditions, with keys to help you identify them:
- Symptoms: Dull, squeezing chest pain that can radiate to the jaw or arm, but also atypical symptoms such as a sense of chest fullness; a feeling of heartburn; pain in the ear, jaw or neck; and nausea or upset stomach
- Tests: Blood tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG)
- At-risk: Smokers, diabetics, and people with high blood pressure or family history of heart disease
- Prevention: Exercise, eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, and maintain a healthy weight
- Symptoms: Lump or palpable change in the breast tissue, redness and heat from the breast, tenderness, swelling, dimpling/flaking of the skin on the nipple
- Tests: Mammogram, ultrasound, MRI
- At risk: Personal or family history of the disease, obesity, having certain genes, and women who give birth to their first child after age 35
- Prevention: Exercise, eat healthy, ask about screening, and follow through with mammograms and breast self-exams
- Symptoms: Shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, chest pain that worsens with deep breaths or coughing (but sometimes there is no pain)
- Tests: Ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, pulmonary angiography
- At-risk: Those who are confined to bed, even for short durations
- Prevention: Keep circulation flowing, particularly in your legs
- Symptoms: Severe, sharp, sudden, stabbing chest pain (important to differentiate from a heart attack, which is usually dull and squeezing pain)
- Tests: Imaging tests of the blood vessels and trans-esophageal echocardiography
- At risk: Men, older people, pregnant women, those with uncontrolled high blood pressure, cocaine users, and people with certain genetic diseases
- Prevention: Control your blood pressure, eat a healthy diet, don’t smoke
To find information about other conditions that might help you communicate more effectively with your doctor, you might also try online resources or an “Ask a Nurse” phone service, which some insurers offer. The important point is, taking an active role in your healthcare includes providing your healthcare team with the information they need to best treat your condition. If done wisely, your efforts to convey useful information to your doctor may prove invaluable to your health.