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4 common questions about misdiagnosis

Many of us dread going to the doctor. It's normal to be hesitant about placing your health in the hands of someone else - especially when you're undergoing risky procedures such as surgery. You have to trust that the doctor, nurses and other medical professionals will do their jobs well.

Unfortunately, that trust is sometimes misplaced. Even the most accomplished of doctors can make mistakes. Often, those mistakes involve the very foundation of successful treatment: an accurate diagnosis.

The possibility of a misdiagnosis should be on every patient's radar. Below are some important things to know about this common - yet serious - issue.

How often does it happen?

The statistics on misdiagnosis are alarming. This critical mistake affects approximately 12 million patients nationwide every year. It's particularly prevalent in cancer cases. In fact, one out of every 71 cancer patients receives an incorrect diagnosis.

What amounts to a misdiagnosis?

Diagnosing a medical condition isn't always an exact science. Many illnesses mimic one another, and rare or obscure conditions can easily go unnoticed. Nonetheless, doctors must uphold professional standards in making diagnoses. This means conducting a thorough medical history, making note of all signs and symptoms, taking patient concerns seriously, conducting the appropriate tests and procedures, and diligently following up on the results.

A misdiagnosis can take many forms. Perhaps an ER doctor sent you home with a diagnosis of indigestion when in reality you were suffering from a heart attack. Maybe your primary doctor overlooked cancer symptoms until it was too late. Or perhaps your doctor failed to refer you to a specialist for what turned out to be a serious condition.

What are the impacts?

A misdiagnosis can have far-reaching ramifications. You might end up undergoing needless treatments that can pose serious risks and side effects. What's more, without prompt treatment, your underlying condition could continue to worsen. One study found that, out of 538 reported cases involving diagnostic mistakes, 28 percent led to life-threatening outcomes, permanent disability or death.

What can you do to prevent it?

The best way to avoid a misdiagnosis is to seek a second opinion. Even if you trust your doctor, it never hurts to get a new take on things, especially if you're facing surgery or other risky procedures. Another physician reviewing your case with fresh eyes might catch something that got overlooked. Consider finding a specialist who has dealt with similar cases before.

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