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8 Ways to Help Your Doctor Make the Right Diagnosis

5. Describe Your Symptoms, but Don't Conclude

Abruzese says she coaches her patients to illustrate the experience they're having. "If you have ear pain and tell your doctor, 'I have an ear infection,' you're excluding other causes of ear pain, such as TMJ or tooth abscess, and your doctor may do that as well," she says. Better to keep a wider path and let the doctor entertain all the possibilities. "Accurate but incomplete information is better than definitive but potentially wrong," says Abruzese.

6. Be Specific About Your Symptoms

Try to get as precise as you can about what you're feeling. If you've got a pain, is it a shooting, sharp pain or a dull ache? Does it come and go after eating? How long does it last? A few seconds? A few minutes? How long have you had it? A week? A month? A year? Does anything decrease the pain?

Also, turn subjective data into objective. If you feel feverish, for example, take your temperature for a week nightly and write down all the information.

This way when you see your doctor you can say, "I've had six headaches in one month, they weren't relieved by Tylenol, they lasted four hours, and I had nausea with them." Then give your doctor time to ask questions.

7. Ask Your Doctor What to Expect

If your doctor does make a diagnosis, ask what you should expect and any red flags you should be looking for, says Gordon Schiff, MD, associate director of the Center for Patient Safety Research and Practice at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. In other words, if you have a viral respiratory infection you should be better in seven days. If you suddenly develop a high fever or feel neck pain, that's a tip-off that something isn't right, says Schiff.

8. Question, Question, Question

Don't be afraid to ask the doctor what he needs to make the diagnosis. Ask point blank: What data do you need to get to the bottom of this? What's your differential diagnosis? (the list of diagnoses it could be) Are there other specialists, procedures, or tests that would help you make the diagnosis? When do you want me to make the next appointment and what information can I bring to help make the diagnosis? Is there a specialist I should see?

Once you have a diagnosis, don't be afraid to second guess your doctor. Are you sure this is what I have? What makes you think that?

And don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion. "I'm not perfect and to go to another doctor and get another opinion doesn't threaten me in any way," says Cutler. Nature, science, and biology are unpredictable, he says. "Good doctors are not threatened by a second opinion. In fact, they're strengthened by it."

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Reviewed on December 20, 2011

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