Recently, I told a patient she needed surgery to repair a damaged mitral valve that was causing blood to rush backward into her heart, decreasing blood flow to the rest of her body. Instead of being frightened by the prospect of surgery, my patient was relieved. For several years doctors had mistaken her condition for an anxiety disorder, because symptoms of mitral valve prolapse (fatigue, chest pain, and difficulty breathing) can look confoundingly like stress. Not surprisingly, the medications she'd been prescribed had done nothing to improve her health. It wasn't until we arrived at the correct diagnosis that she could look forward to feeling better—and finally moving on with her life.
Despite our best efforts, physicians do sometimes get it wrong. In fact, a 2013 study of more than 350,000 malpractice claims found that missed, incorrect, and delayed diagnoses were the most dangerous mistakes doctors made, and they're estimated to result in permanent injury or death for up to 160,000 Americans annually. But you can protect yourself: The best way to dodge medical mishaps, from medication errors to unnecessary surgeries, is to help your doctor help you. Start by asking these questions at your next appointment.
Do you need to see the tests my other doctor ran last year?
I always urge people to learn their full family medical history, because it helps doctors detect conditions that can be hereditary, like heart disease and cancer. But you don't want to be so busy tracking Aunt Mona's medications that you forget to thoroughly chart your own health history. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine
found that 10 percent of diagnostic errors occur because doctors lack the patient's complete medical history.
Call any doctor you've seen in the past five years (if you can go back further, even better) and ask for copies of your records. These files contain much more than just your vitals; they include consent forms, physicians' orders, test results, pathology reports, and immunization records. The information could help specialists avoid repeat testing (and spare you unnecessary radiation from scans) or connect the dots to a diagnosis another doctor might have missed. You may have to fill out some paperwork or even pay a small fee (for postage or copies of X-rays or MRI films), but don't let that deter you. You have the right to access your health information.
Next: Do I have time to get a second opinion?