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Delays in a Medical Diagnosis and Why It Matters

Delays in a Medical Diagnosis and Why It Matters

One reason for delays in getting a medical diagnosis is a failure to believe the patient. Coleen’s symptoms started with leg and back pain. At the time, she had a daughter at home who was about a year and a half old. Coleen played a lot of tennis, so she thought perhaps she had pulled something during a match.

When heat and ice didn’t help the pain, Coleen’s primary care physician referred her to an orthopedic physician. The doctor’s comment: “perhaps you lift your kid too much.”

When Physicians Don’t Listen

Coleen is one of many people I have interviewed regarding their experiences with serious illness. Coleen wondered how to care for a young child without lifting her in and out of the car, the crib, or the high chair. The doctor’s response, “just try to minimize those events.” He sent Coleen home with a “jug of pain pills.”

After a few days, Coleen stopped the pain pills because she didn’t like the way they made her feel. She tried to minimize lifting her daughter but the pain continued to get worse. Coleen’s mother came to stay for a few weeks to help.

During this time, Coleen’s husband got a job in another state requiring the family to re-locate. She could barely walk. After the move, a family physician friend referred Coleen to a neurologist. This physician questioned Coleen about her symptoms, her pain. He was skeptical, wondering if perhaps she was faking her pain to obtain pain pills.

Coleen broke down in tears.

This is not in my head. This is in my back. I am unable to perform my duties as a mom, and as a wife, and as a human being on this planet Earth. I am in so much pain. I am not faking this. I don’t want your damn pills, I want to find out what’s going on.

Consequences of Delays in a Medical Diagnosis

Tests finally revealed a ruptured disc in her lower back. The disc pieces embedded in her spinal column explained the excruciating pain. Surgery relieved the pain, and Coleen finally felt validated.

Living with excruciating pain shouldn’t be the default option because doctors aren’t taking health concerns, and symptoms, seriously. When concerns are dismissed, it is often difficult for patients to push forward for answers:

  • Pain, like the kind Coleen experienced, makes daily functioning extraordinarily difficult.
  • When a physician fails to take health concerns seriously, it depletes emotional and physical reserves.

If troubling symptoms continue, it is essential to persist, to get an explanation. Only then can the work begin to address the core problem. Here are additional reasons for getting the medical diagnosis right.

Reasons for Delays in Medical Diagnoses

Reasons for delays in a medical diagnosis are numerous and often inter-related. Here is a short list of reasons from my interviews and patients’ experiences:

  • Symptoms ignored or dismissed by either patient or physician
  • Misdiagnosis
  • Lack of insurance or adequate coverage
  • Rare conditions
  • Physician lack of knowledge/expertise
  • Multiple health issues that mask the primary concern

These reasons are a complicated mix of personal, medical, and institutional issues. Both recognizing and understanding the reasons for delays helps to take the necessary next steps.

5 Paths to a More Timely Medical Diagnosis

Here are a few tips, based on patients’ experiences:

  • Listen (and trust) what your own body is telling you. Only you know what is normal and what is not.
  • Be sure to follow-up with a medical expert when your body is telling you that something isn’t right.
  • Find a physician that will listen to what you have to say about your symptoms and concerns.
  • Get a second opinion, or perhaps even a third or fourth.
  • Ask a friend, or hire a professional patient advocate to join you for doctor’s appointments.

A timely diagnosis is critical. Treatment may begin earlier and perhaps lessen medical complications. Reducing the length of treatment also helps to ease the strain on financial and emotional resources.

* Quotes in this post are from interviews conducted for my book, Navigating Illness: The Patient Experience, a work in progress. Names were changed upon an individual’s request.

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