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This is the most important question to ask your doctor

 The most important question to ask your doctor (Photo: iStock)

You must have heard about cases of misdiagnosis. Simply put, that means a patient getting an inaccurate diagnosis and being treated for a non-existent condition. You may also have heard of delays in getting a definitive diagnosis following protracted visits to doctors. All that leads to poor health outcomes, and premature deaths for some. But why does this occur?

Settling on an accurate diagnosis is never a straightforward matter in many situations. It all starts with your symptoms, and how you relate them to your doctor. Then comes the said doctor, and their qualifications and experience.

All that must be supported by a well-resourced healthcare facility. You also play a crucial role in ending up with the right diagnosis. You must learn the art of asking questions when interacting with doctors. Many questions in fact. What's the matter with me? What tests do I need, or don't need, to do? What's my outlook with respect to a cure or long-term stability? Should I seek a second opinion? Is this the best healthcare facility for my kind of disease?

But there is one single question which is of utmost importance. Once a diagnosis is offered, you must ask this question: "What else could this be?" Well, it might seem confrontational and reek of mistrust to your doctor's skills. But this single question forces a relook that might lead to an alternate diagnosis.

You will be surprised to hear of a recent study that has looked at this matter. Doctors can easily get too good at their jobs. That means they'll interpret all your evaluations and quickly settle on a specific diagnosis, and ignore anything else that might contradict their conclusion. The doctors will pay attention to data that supports their thinking, ignoring data that might indicate something else. This phenomenon is called 'anchoring bias', and doctors must remain vigilant about its pitfalls.

Coming from you, 'What else could this be?' breaks the barrier of anchoring bias. If your doctor does not appear to bring it up, you must. Most doctors will do it as a matter of course, sometimes almost unconsciously. But some may be too quick off the mark and need some prompting. It may mean a cure for you rather than protracted suffering.

Multiple factors add up to influence your healthcare outcomes. Asking a single important question may appear simplistic. But health outcome reviews are full of missed diagnoses that eventually had a tragic endpoint. All simply because an alternate diagnosis was never entertained.

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