What to Do When You Disagree With Your Doctor’s Diagnosis

Cheryl Maguire

“I think it’s just the flu,” the doctor said.

I trusted our pediatrician, but my mother’s instinct was telling me something wasn’t right about my 14-year-old son’s flu diagnosis. His twin sister recently had pneumonia, and I thought his cough sounded like hers, so I requested a chest X-ray. My gut reaction was correct: my son had pneumonia. As a mom of three kids, this wasn’t the first time I’ve disagreed with the doctor.

People may be hesitant to disagree with a doctor’s diagnosis, but medical mistakes and oversights happen. Back in 1999, the health care industry set the goal to reduce medical errors by 50 percent within five years—but 20 years later, medical errors are just as prevalent as they were then. 

“As a physician and as a person who has a chronic illness, I have experience on both sides of this difficult issue,” says Mark D. Rego, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. “The problem is one of imbalance: the doctor has expert knowledge and experience that can be difficult to dispute.”

Rego goes on to explain, “Even as a physician, who educates himself on the relevant technical material beforehand, I can find myself at a loss for knowing what to believe.”

If you or a family member has received a diagnosis that seems inadequate or inaccurate, consider these suggestions:

Request more tests. 

When I suspected my son was sick with something other than the flu, I asked for blood tests, X-rays, or other tests that could provide a concrete diagnosis. The pediatrician was happy I requested the additional tests since it changed his course of treatment. The test showed fluid in my son’s lungs, which is indisputable evidence of pneumonia.

Identify your concerns—and present them respectfully. 

Instead of viewing the situation as a disagreement, try asking questions. Rego suggests considering, “What aspect of the symptoms is not being addressed? Is there something the doctor is glossing over as if it does not count? Are you not being believed? Are you afraid that you will get sicker and even die?”

Once you clarify your concerns, Rego recommends voicing your concerns and questions directly to the doctor.

If you question a doctor’s diagnosis, Rego recommends being respectful, prefacing your comments by saying something like, “I know you are an expert, but something worries me.” 

“You should be humble in your speech, as well as your thinking,” he says.

Get a second opinion.

It’s okay to seek a second opinion from another physician. Sometimes seeing another doctor with a different perspective can help diagnosis the issue.

“Doctors are not always right, but they should pay attention when things do not go well and be prepared to reconsider,” says Rego.

Talk to your friends.

Often friends or family members may have experienced similar issues and can provide feedback or recommendations for a specific doctor. But remember: Another person’s anecdotal information does not equal an accurate diagnosis in your own situation.

Find an expert.

Rego explains that finding a specialist or expert isn’t a matter of looking for a doctor that other patients say is “great.” Instead, he says, “Look for someone in a large hospital or medical school.” A doctor working in a large hospital or medical school indicates collaboration with other doctors and a more academic approach.

“After you have identified a doctor from a large hospital or medical school, then check Google Scholar. Put in their name and see how many articles they have published on your subject,” Rego recommends. “If it’s at least five to 10, they know your subject and have seen many people with the problem.”

In my son’s case, we didn’t need to find an expert since he didn’t have an ongoing chronic issue. Also, our doctor was willing to listen to my concerns and request additional tests. No matter the condition, it is important that you feel comfortable discussing your concerns with your doctor. If you don’t feel this way, it may be time to find a new doctor. 

Cheryl Maguire has been published in The New York Times, Parents, AARP, and many other publications. A version of this article was originally published on yourteenmag.com.

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