What should you do if you present to your doctor with concerning symptoms and they dismiss or minimize them as “nothing serious?” The answer: be your own advocate.
While there are many reasons to trust a doctor, they are not immune to missteps or mistakes, including dismissing symptoms too readily based on pre-existing or biased assumptions. While your physician is certainly knowledgeable, without a thorough work-up of the symptoms (i.e., diagnostic testing), they can only offer you an opinion – not necessarily a medical diagnosis. In other words, they simply form an opinion based on information you provide, what they may have observed on physical examination (if there is such an exam), and their particular frame of reference, i.e.: background, training, etc. If your symptoms persist or get worse, you should return to your physician and request diagnostic testing (could range from blood work to MRI to biopsy) and referral to a specialist, if appropriate. If your physician is not responsive to your requests, then promptly get a second opinion.
Unfortunately, mistakes do happen by medical professionals. At a minimum, a physician’s dismissal or misdiagnosis of symptoms can lead to a longer than necessary illness. In the most extreme cases, the result can be death. But, for many, initially being told their symptoms are not concerning can lead to medically costly delays that can have a negative impact on the patient’s quality of life.
There are several factors that may lead to harmful medical assumptions:
- Medicine is a business. Your appointment probably lasted less than 20 minutes.One pre-COVID study found most providers only spent between 13 – 16 minutes with patients. Physicians are often encouraged to see as many patients as possible in a day. Time is money, and the pressure to quickly process patients can negatively impact a thorough and careful diagnostic process.
- Your doctor’s office is likely understaffed. Even before COVID, inadequate staffing at all levels, but especially nursing, was a chronic issue. Today, it has only worsened, leading to increased workload and decreased job satisfaction that negatively impact patient care.
- Your doctor’s assessment may be impacted by implicit bias. Medical bias has been shown to impact the quality of medical care for a number of patient groups, including women, minorities, and the young. While largely unconscious, bias nevertheless can skew a physician’s perception of symptoms and lead to misdiagnosis.
- Physician burnout could be a factor. “Burnout” manifests itself in a number of ways including greater job dissatisfaction, increased detachment, emotional exhaustion, and cynicism. A 2016 study by the Mayo Clinic showed over half of the doctors surveyed “reported at least one symptom of burnout.” The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the issue, with one survey revealing nearly two-thirds of physicians in the U.S. are experiencing burnout. If your doctor is one of those experiencing burnout, the result can be greater inattention and less engagement, leading to more missed diagnoses.
To minimize being the victim of a doctor’s dismissal, you must be your own advocate. You should be prepared to discuss your symptoms with your provider. Having a prepared list of questions can be helpful. Bring someone with you whom you trust to your appointment. If something does not feel right, or you still have a sense of your symptoms being more serious than your doctor seems to think, do not hesitate to get a second (or even third) opinion. You are your own best advocate.
We hope you never suffer the consequences of a careless dismissal of your symptoms under a provider’s assumption that they are “not serious.” If you or a loved one have been a victim of a misdiagnosis or missed diagnosis, let’s talk.