There is nothing more frustrating as a patient than having a provider look at you and summarily discount your symptoms as ‘impossible’. It is very common that we are hesitant, even afraid, of that which we do not understand. It is also true that those trained to diagnose and treat us could and should be held to a higher standard.
It is to them we look when our body revolts against us in ways which we do not understand. It is them to whom we turn when we feel our body couldn’t possibly be destroying itself as it seems to be doing. It is our physicians we look to for an answer of that which we cannot make sense of on our own. And that is how it should be for they are the ones with years and years of education and experience upon which to base their examination and diagnosis.
However, when learning the science of medical care, they are often taught to think of the most common diagnosis first. While on the surface this makes sense, oftentimes they fail to diligently pursue our entire history and symptoms in order to make a proper diagnosis. As with anything in life one must take into account all pertinent information in order to make a proper determination as to what is happening.
A phrase often used early in one’s practice of treating other human beings is “when you think hoofbeats think horses, not zebras.” While this may work in the majority of cases, I assure you that it does not work well in every scenario, nor should it be expected to. A better way to phrase this lesson would be “when horses no longer make sense, start thinking zebras”.
Frequently when a physician actually takes the time to perform a full and complete exam and history they are left at a loss as to precisely what the cause may be in their more complex population of patients. That is because those of us with complex medical problems do not present as the typical patient. Our symptoms may not even make sense presenting with each other. Nevertheless, we are very real and so are our symptoms. We deserve to be believed and to have our complaints and symptoms taken seriously regardless of whether they make immediate sense or not.
Both when working in patient care, and while being a patient, I have encountered too many stories of people suffering for years prior to receiving a true and accurate diagnosis. While it is true that sometimes a proper diagnosis eludes medical science, it is also true that sometimes when a diagnosis isn’t readily recognizable, we as patients suffer. Sometimes we suffer needlessly when just a little perseverance on the part of our medical professionals would provide an answer. Other times a diagnosis just isn’t possible.
My suggestion to medical professionals is to be willing to consider zebras when horses no longer make sound medical judgment. Don’t be unwilling to consider the obscure. Be more than willing to advocate for and on behalf of your patients right to proper diagnosis and treatment. Above all else, do no harm. For when you dismiss us, you are often causing irreparable harm physically, medically, and emotionally.
Do you have a story you’d like to share regarding a challenge in obtaining a proper diagnosis or treatment? Please share with us in the comments below.