Misdiagnosis: What to do About it

In ideal circumstances, when someone gets sick they experience symptoms, go to the doctor, get a diagnosis, and start a course of treatment that will either effectively cure or, at the very least, help them manage their illness.  Unfortunately, for millions of people the process isn’t that easy; for one reason or another their illnesses go undiagnosed, or get misdiagnosed, and they continue to suffer  — sometimes for years at a time.

There are no specific statistics on the total number of people misdiagnosed each year, but there are a few statistics for specific diseases and disorders. For instance, approximately 83 percent of patients with celiac disease go misdiagnosed, and patients can wait between six and 10 years before getting an accurate diagnosis. Other diseases that are commonly misdiagnosed, include lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, appendicitis, hypothyroidism, and diabetes.

Why Do Misdiagnoses Occur?

There could be any number of reasons why a disease can be misdiagnosed. One of the more common reasons is that the symptoms of the disease can mimic many other diseases. For example, not every celiac patient has a gastrointestinal response to eating gluten. In fact, many patients experience joint pain that could be misdiagnosed as arthritis, depression or anxiety that could be misdiagnosed as a mental health issue, or skin rashes that could be diagnosed as a dermatological issue. Even if the patient does have a gastrointestinal reaction to gluten, they could be misdiagnosed with any number of other digestive disorders.


Another reason is that doctors don’t spend less and less time with patients, which could lead to them overlooking certain disease possibilities. For example, for a patient middle-aged patient complaining of weight gain, depression, muscle aches, and memory problems, the doctor could declare that it’s the patient’s age, diet, or lack of exercise is because they are the quickest and most obvious culprits, when spending an extra fifteen minutes talking to the patient, or conferring with another doctor, could lead him to consider hypothyroidism as a cause.

One final reason could be that the diagnostic protocols for certain diseases are incomplete or nonexistent. For example, the most distinctive symptom of lupus is the butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks, but not everyone gets the rash and there is no actual diagnostic test for lupus. Doctors might be able to detect the effects of the disease by performing a kidney biopsy, or testing other tissues for damage from inflammation, but it could take years to get a correct diagnosis, while the lupus antibodies damage organs.

The Danger of Misdiagnosis

The biggest danger is that the disease continues to damage the body while the patient waits for diagnosis and proper treatment. Additionally, when a patient is misdiagnosed, the treatment for the misdiagnosis could make the actually disease worse.

For example, if a patient with thyroid disease is misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and is prescribed lithium, that treatment can damage the thyroid. In some cases, a misdiagnosis can even lead to death.

Patient Recourse

For many patients, the only recourse is to seek legal help.

Doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers are usually protected by their individual organizations, and by law firms like Nelson Hardiman that specialize in dealing with cases of healthcare providers. These organizations exist to make sure that healthcare professionals follow established diagnostic and treatment protocols, to prevent error, and that they have the legal coverage they need if faced with a patient complaint.

It is for this reason that patients should also make sure they are protected. If you suspect that you have been misdiagnosed by a doctor or other healthcare provider, you should do the following:

·  Keep detailed records of your attempts at diagnosis. This includes dates and times of appointments, who you spoke to in the appointment, what was said, and the results of any tests. You should also record any changes to your symptoms, or new symptoms that develop. Ask the doctor for copies of the notes from each session and, if necessary, ask the doctor if you can record each session.

·  Educate yourself on the possible causes of your symptoms.

·  Don’t take the doctor’s work for it. Get second, and third, opinions to make sure you are getting the right diagnosis, even if you have to go so far as to demand that doctor run certain diagnostic tests.

·  When you receive a correct diagnosis, get clear information from the doctor on what that means, and what could have happened if the disease had been diagnosed sooner.

·  Present your records and information to a lawyer that specializes in malpractice suits to determine your next course of action.