What Seems to Be the Problem? The Process Your Doctor Uses to Reach the Right Diagnosis

What Seems to Be the Problem? The Process Your Doctor Uses to Reach the Right Diagnosis

As patients, it can be difficult to know what's going on in your doctor's mind when you come to them with a problem. In some cases, patients leave an office feeling dismissed and unheard. Understanding the general diagnostic process doctors take to reach conclusions can help you feel more comfortable about the quality of care and attention you receive.

The intersection of many symptoms makes diagnosis a particular process, one that medical students are introduced to early on to learn the ropes and avoid misdiagnosis. Now, there are models of the ideal diagnostic process that reduces the likelihood of a medical error and helps patients receive the treatment they need quickly.

Initial Assessment

During your first appointment, your doctor will listen to you describe your symptoms and conduct an assessment. They will conduct a physical exam, which includes looking more closely at your symptoms in particular. Some people may be able to be diagnosed directly at this point, but others may move forward and have greater testing to affirm their diagnosis.

Your personal history and the results of the evaluation may result in the formation of a differential diagnosis. Many different health issues present with similar symptoms. However, those different health concerns can’t necessarily be treated the same way. A differential diagnosis is the doctor's process of discerning which of two or more conditions might be the cause of your symptoms so that they can recommend the most effective treatment.

Diagnostic Testing

Testing can include more specific examinations, which may include x-rays, CAT and MRI scans, and lab services. Lab services cover a range of diagnostic procedures that include blood work, neurological tests, and urine and stool sample evaluation. The exact type of tests your doctor orders will not only help them rule out other diagnoses but also be more confident in a final diagnosis.

You may have to get lab services done several times to rule out different diagnoses, possibly at an outside laboratory that your doctor refers you to. These labs are all run by medical professionals whose jobs are dedicated to delivering results that help facilitate patient diagnosis and care.

When you meet with your doctor after testing, they’ll often give you a copy of the test results. However, unless you also have a medical background, the results will likely look like gibberish to you. Ask your doctor to take a moment to explain the results to you and how to read them. This way, if you have to go through similar tests in the future, either in finding a diagnosis or as part of your treatment, you’ll have a clearer understanding of your health and progress. While doctors and other healthcare providers are important in your treatment and recovery, you are responsible for your health.

Treatment and/or Referral

When your doctor has reached a conclusion, they will deliver an official diagnosis and outline your treatment options. In some cases, this may involve being referred to a specialist for additional treatment. If your doctor is unable to confirm a diagnosis alone, then they will have you see a specialist who performs additional tests and examinations.

During this process, you should ask leading questions and stay as informed as possible. Ask your doctor questions like, "What do you think this could be?" or "What disorders are most likely to cause these symptoms?"

Sometimes, the diagnostic process is short and only lasts an hour. Other diagnoses may take months if symptoms are unable to be pinned to any particular disease or condition. Working with a doctor you trust and can talk to will make getting treatment much easier. If you ever doubt a diagnosis or have been delivered serious news, it is always beneficial to seek out a second opinion from another qualified medical professional.


Anita is a freelance writer from Denver, CO. She studied at Colorado State University and now enjoys writing about health, business, and family. A mother of two wonderful children, she loves traveling with her family whenever she isn’t writing. You can find her on Twitter @anitaginsburg.
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