How to be the Best Patient

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An oft-cited study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that as many as 440,000 deaths per year are attributable to medical errors.[1] According to the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, medical errors include clinically missed or delayed diagnoses that may occur as often as 23.5% of the time.[2] A diagnostic error is a diagnosis that is missed, incorrect or delayed, as confirmed by a subsequent, definitive test or finding.[3] Diagnostic errors are also one of the most common reasons for medical malpractice lawsuits.

While doctors and hospitals have multiple strategies to help them get to the right diagnosis as early as possible, the quality of information received from the patient is the most important part of the diagnostic process. Communication between the patient and the physician remains the primary means by which physicians obtain information about their clients. Communication with your doctor is a two way street, especially in a busy practice.  Here are a few tips to improve the information you communicate to your doctor:

  1. Keep a health diary or calendar to track your symptoms, complaints, visits, medications, and test results. Even people without chronic conditions benefit by having this type of information to share with their providers.  It’s too easy to forget things when you don’t see the doctor often or when you are in a hurry to relay your symptoms when the doctor asks, “what’s wrong.” Most of us focus on giving the doctor the most recent snapshot, but a diary offers a movie of your health. Even things that you think are minor could be important.
  2. Obtain, read, and keep copies of test results, film reports and discharge summaries. Don’t just take for granted that the doctor has seen your results. By reading and maintaining your own records, you’ll be in a better position to ask questions and possibly catch things before they become problems. Don’t think that “no news is good news.” Follow up on your results.
  3. Bring someone with you to hear what the doctor has to say and take the time to ask what that person heard to confirm your understanding.
  4. Find a doctor who listens to you and will answer your questions – especially when you ask, “what led you to that diagnosis,” “what else could it be,” or is there a symptom that does not fit your diagnosis?” If you feel like your doctor has overlooked something, TELL HIM.

Your doctor uses a diagnostic method that relies on your medical history, the medical history of the problem, and the results of a physical examination and tests to identify patterns. By providing your doctor with more and better information, you increase the chances of an earlier and more accurate diagnosis.

[1] JHU Study

[2] Diagnostic Error in Acute Care, Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, Vol. 7, No. 3 – September, 2010.

[3] Help Your Doctor Diagnose You Correctly, Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, September, 2010.