How to get the correct diagnosis from your doctor

When you get sick, what diagnosis you get depends more on your words than anything else. What you say and how you say it can make or break a diagnosis.

Doctors make wrong diagnosis all the time. Researchers have estimated that doctors may get the diagnosis wrong in as many as 10% of the patients. They get it wrong because they don’t listen to you properly. Here are 10 things you can do to get yourself heard and increase your odds of getting the right diagnosis:

1. Tell the whole story:

The doctor is supposed to ask you what brought you to the hospital and listen to your whole story. Some doctors try to bypass that by asking only about the presumed diagnosis. For example, “How is your chest pain now?” or “Are you still feeling dizzy?” It usually happens when the doctor has heard your story from someone else. Unless the doctor has seen you before, you need to make sure the doctor gets the whole story from you. When others (nurses, medical student, residents etc) relay your story to your main doctor, they taint in to fit it with their own assumption about your diagnosis. When you tell your story exactly the way it happened, you give the doctor a chance to independently evaluate your situation and make accurate diagnosis.

2. Give background details:

Tell the doctor about your past illness and past treatments. The doctor is supposed to ask you about this. Unfortunately, many of them just read your old chart and assume they know about your past history even before they see you. What they read on the chart may not be completely true and may wrongly influence their thinking. You can correct that by telling your doctor all about your past medical problems correctly. Also let the doctor know what treatments worked in the past and what did not.

3. Describe what it felt like:

There are two parts to an illness: what happened to you and how that made you feel. Many times, people just describe what happened but fail to properly describe how that made them feel. Do not just say, “I vomited” or “I fell down”, describe how you felt prior to vomiting or falling down. Describe your sensation and your pain exactly as you recall them.

4. Skip what others told you

When you are sick enough to get hospitalized, you are usually seen by many health care providers. They may have seen you first at the doctor’s office or urgent care. Then you may have been seen in the ER. You may been told you probably have “pneumonia” or “urine infection” or any other diagnosis. When your main doctor comes to your bedside and asks you, “Why are you here?” or “What brings you here?”, do not say “I am here for a pneumonia” or “I am here for an urine infection”. Tell the doctor how you started and getting sick and what happened since then.

5.Speak for yourself

Do not let your eager family members answer the doctor’s questions for you. This is very important when you have a nurse or other healthcare professional in your family. You may think that you are better off by letting your family member talk to the doctor because he/she is a professional, but that is a big mistake. Nothing is more helpful in getting correct diagnosis than the first hand account of your illness described by you. You daughter may be a highly experienced nurse but when she describes what happened to you, the story is influenced by what she thinks is wrong with you. You need to describe what you felt without any presumed diagnosis if you want to increase the chances of getting the right diagnosis.

6. Do not be afraid to say, “Let me finish”

Doctors are usually impatient and jump to conclusions too early. They interrupt you too often and ask you too many closed ended questions without listening to the whole story. When you see that happening, firmly remind the doctor to listen to the whole story first. It is not rude to say, “let me finish first” if your doctor interrupts you when you are describing your symptoms.

7. Say what you are worried about

When you get sick and seek help, you have a feeling about what could be wrong. Or, you may have been worried about a particular diagnosis because you heard of someone who had that diagnosis in a similar situation. When you finish describing the details of what happened and how you felt, it is important to tell the doctor what you are worried about or what you think is going on. What your body is trying to tell you is very important and can point to the correct diagnosis.

8. Anything can be important

When you have a theory about why you got sick, tell it to your doctor no matter how far-fetched it seems to you. Anything in your life may have a relation to your illness. If you think something you did may have caused your sickness, tell it to your doctor even if it sounds silly. Do not hold anything back.

9. Repeat 1-8 with every new doctor



When you are hospitalized, you may be seen by different specialists. Every time a new specialist sees you, repeat all the above steps. Sometimes, it gets tiring and you just want to say, “why don’t you read my chart?” but that is exactly what you do not want them to do. When they read the chart instead of listening to you, they are just conforming what your main doctor is thinking. When your main doctor makes a presumptive diagnosis, he/she writes everything in your story to fit the diagnostic theory. You want the consulting specialist to work from the ground level and make independent diagnosis. It is only possible when you go through steps 1 through 8 with every new specialist.

10. Ask what the doctor is thinking and why

You need to know what the doctor thinks and why. Knowing the why gives you the basic building block of your diagnostic theory. You know what part of your story or played an important role in making the diagnosis. If you have any correction or additional information about that particular part, that can make a huge impact in your diagnosis.