It should be said that not all doctors were created equally, and just because someone has the title of “doctor” doesn’t mean their diagnosis should be taken as gospel.
There are many reasons why a doctor might give a misdiagnosis,
- perhaps they are experiencing a stressful time constraint in the office
- or having a rough day/having some kind of personal problem
- they may not have as much experience as you expect them to, or
- their experience might not be in the area where you are seeking a diagnosis
- sometimes the patient might keep pertinent information about symptoms quiet without meaning to
- or the patient might keep other symptoms quiet on purpose because of embarrassment
- the patient might keep drug or alcohol use quiet when the information would be helpful
- and sometimes the patient enters the appointment with a preconceived notion of what they believe the diagnosis should be
For any of these reasons (and many more) you may have found yourself at some point with a misdiagnosis.
It is important to remember that when seeing a doctor, you are paying for their educated opinion. Obviously things like technology and lab tests can help greatly in various medical situations, but it is up to your practitioner to come to any final conclusions.
That said, I largely encourage seeking a second opinion in any diagnosis that could prove to be life altering.
For example, a few years ago I was diagnosed by my general practitioner at the time with celiacs disease, basically a gluten allergy. I cut all wheat products out of my diet for nine months before I was finally able to see a specialist, and within 5 minutes of sitting in his office he told me I had been misdiagnosed.
Nine months of emotional turmoil about food, and in the end it was really for nothing. Nine months without pizza, beer, and donuts (which is a big deal to someone in their early 20’s) that I will never get back!
Beyond these sorts of situations is an area that is even more tricky: mental health.
Our knowledge of the human brain has grown considerably but we’re still a long way off from understanding many aspects of it. Unfortunately, this complicates the diagnostic process for most mental illnesses considerably. Beyond the reasons above for potential misdiagnosis, there are the personal beliefs of your doctor (which can vary wildly, trust me), and the fact that each human being is an individual.
Each person is different, and sometimes our symptoms don’t fit into neat little categories. Just speaking for myself, I’ve had at least 6 different diagnoses in the category of mental health alone. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the text that sets the diagnostic standards for mental disorders) is currently being updated and will be released in May, 2013. Hopefully this will help make the diagnostic process easier for mental health patients, but we’ll see.
There are some things you can (and should) do, however, to help make sure you are receiving adequate care. These ideas hold true for any kind of doctor’s visit, though here I will focus on mental health:
- Research your doctor. Are they specialized in mental health (a psychiatrist)? How long have they been practicing? When seeking a new psychiatrist, you can try having a short meeting with two or three to see who you feel most comfortable with. It also doesn’t hurt to ask friends or acquaintances for referrals to the doctors that they really like.
- Keep an open dialog with your doctor about what they think your diagnosis might be. It may take several visits before they feel comfortable making any conclusions.
- Be completely open and honest with your doctor about your symptoms, as well as drug and alcohol use. Sometimes symptoms are embarrassing or frighting, but they will not be addressed if you keep them quiet.
- It is ok to have an idea of your possible diagnosis (based on reading or previous ones) but try to avoid pressuring/limiting your doctor to specific diagnoses.
- Reflect on yourself. Nobody knows you better than you know yourself, so taking the time to consider your symptoms and take note of what is hindering you the most will help give your doctor a better overview.
- You have the right to decide what course of action to take in regards to your health. You always have a choice when it comes to which medications to take (though there is some gray area if you are under 18, in which case I sincerely hope you are still allowed the final decision), so don’t be afraid to have an opinion.
Even if you aren’t a doctor, you have a right to your own opinion. If you disagree with your doctor, do more than tell them that. Tell them why. It is important to feel like you have a voice in this process, but it is also important to (again) reflect on yourself and consider if your doctor’s words might have some truth. When in doubt, always seek a second opinion.
And finally, do remember (as mentioned before), each person is an individual. Some people will not fit into one singular diagnosis, or even two. Though having a clear diagnosis can help begin the healing process, it isn’t always possible. A diagnosis doesn’t define us, it is simply an aid in receiving treatment. In my experience, knowledge and acceptance of oneself is the ultimate goal with this process, a diagnosis is just a tool to help a little along the way.