The other evening sitting with friends the discussion turned to our medical profession and how sometimes, too often, doctors make mistakes in diagnosis. The conversation went from misdiagnosis of cancer, heart attacks to mental illness.
One friend told of a woman whose mother had been misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory was fading, and family could no longer cope. They decided to get a second opinion and it turned out that the woman had a Vitamin B12 deficiency, which can cause dementia. Her mild anaemia due to this deficiency had been overlooked and Vitamin B12 reversed the anaemia and her thinking. This kind of thing happens a lot and often serious harm or death is the outcome especially in cases of medication given for heart attacks or other illnesses which were unnecessary for the body to take at the time.
How does this happen? Well in the first place remember the doctor gets his information from YOU. He will ask you about the symptoms, do tests then try to see a pattern regarding the illness. This then gets superimposed on the knowledge in the doctor’s mind regarding illnesses. Often this does not work for a number of reasons.
The doctor may not have all the facts or some of the information could have been misleading. Some patients don’t tell the doctor all the symptoms and sometimes the doctor does not write them all down or the doctor cuts off the patient while they are talking as they have reached a mental conclusion already. Research shows that most doctors interrupt a patient 18 seconds from the start of the appointment. Also recognising the pattern is difficult because symptoms may not be typical of any illness and illnesses show up in different ways. This makes it important how the doctor puts together the information and weighs it up and this is how misdiagnosis is made.
If a doctor grabs onto the first results of a test, which is easy to do, then comes to a quick conclusion from that, they can be led astray. Also the doctor may liken the illness to previous experience regarding previous patients, and diagnose this patient the same way. Sometimes people are put into categories and certain things attributed to the patient because of their age, race or family history. Often this does a disservice to the person simply because they are older and they get labelled as a complainer or a hypochondriac, or someone just unable to cope with age. This makes misdiagnosis in the elderly quite common. It means the doctor misses the possibility that the illness may not be linked to old age as in the case above of the woman with Alzheimer’s. Her misdiagnosed illness would not only have affected her emotionally but put enormous strain on the family and put her perhaps in a nursing home for the rest of her life.
Patients can help avoid such dilemmas by asking doctors more questions. One of these could be to investigate what else it could be if not the illness he has diagnosed. Another important question is if there could be something else in the test results or your history that does not fit in with his conclusion. This will cause the doctor to go over the notes and results a second time to ensure he doesn’t miss something. Asking the doctor if there could be two different things going on to explain the symptoms, is another helpful question. This will cause the doctor to not stop searching just because he thinks he has found the cause of the illness. It will mean they will again review their notes and their decision. Also the doctor should be able to explain to you clearly how their decision was reached. If they can’t do this then they need to go back and rethink and put it in a language you can understand. Having to explain it to you makes them clearer in their understanding of you as a patient with this illness.
It also needs to be remembered that doctors are doing the best they can with the overwhelming amount of illnesses we have in our denatured world. New ones, with new viruses and new bacteria. The bottom line is that YOU are responsible for your health and to stay healthy and not to try to pass the buck to the doctor to FIX you up. It needs to be remembered doctors, after all, are only human