Getting Healthy: What Works, What Doesn't
Assessing the Symptoms
For three years, doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. My pinkie finger pulsated, my cheek twitched, my left side felt weak, and I had a dull pain behind one eye. I was examined by 10 specialists and had three MRI scans and multiple blood tests, but still no answers. I spent my days making appointments and my nights surfing the Internet, trying to make my own diagnosis.
What was happening to me is all too common, even in this age of high-tech medical tests and screenings. According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, at least 4 percent of patients who pass away while in the hospital might have survived had their diagnoses been accurate. The risk of error may be greatest for women, because some of the most notoriously difficult-to-diagnose conditions are autoimmune diseases, which affect three times as many women as men. "Women with autoimmune diseases wait an average of four years and see four doctors before they get a correct diagnosis," says Virginia Ladd, president and executive director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. "Worse yet, 45 percent of them are labeled chronic complainers."
So what can you do to make sure your medical case doesn't go unsolved? For starters, understand the process. To make a diagnosis, doctors consider three key things, explains Douglas Reifler, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. First, they review your medical history -- the information they get from your introductory visit, including medical conditions that run in your family, your own past health complaints, and your lifestyle (whether you smoke, drink, exercise, and so on). Second, they consider the symptoms that prompted you to make an appointment. Third, they factor in the results of your physical exam, lab work, scans, ultrasounds, and/or x-rays. The rest is as much an art as it is a science, and it's crucial that you take an active role. "There's a lot of teamwork in the diagnostic process, but ultimately you're the person most responsible for the success of your healthcare team," says Mehmet Oz, MD, professor and vice chairman of surgery at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University and coauthor of You: The Smart Patient.
Whether your symptoms have been bothering you for a few days, a few months, or even years, follow these seven easy steps to help your doctor make a speedy, accurate diagnosis.
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