Despite the considerable commitment and expertise of all healthcare team members, delayed or inaccurate diagnoses happen to millions of patients each year, and can cause considerable harm. According to the National Academy of Medicine, patients are central to the solution and must be considered essential members of the diagnostic team and in improvement efforts.
A patient might assume that a persistent cough will lead to a simple diagnosis, but like many aspects of healthcare, making a medical diagnosis can be an imperfect, inexact process. It involves considering and ruling out alternatives, communicating complex information, integrating the ever-changing evidence and science landscape, and managing uncertainty. Making an accurate, well-communicated and timely diagnosis can be challenging.
Patients and caregivers have an opportunity to participate in the diagnostic process by seeking information about their symptoms or illness from credible sources, offering complete information about their medical history, tracking and reporting symptoms, collecting test results and other personal health data, and asking “what else could it be?” Patients should know how and when to return for care if symptoms evolve or don’t respond and consider getting second opinions for serious or uncertain diagnoses.