Wrong Diagnosis: The Secret Child Of Every Doctor

© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
“I don’t agree with your diagnosis” said the senior gynaecologist to me, as the rich patient and his family heard with interest and confusion, “I don’t think this patient has Parkinsons Disease”.
I had just returned from an advanced University Hospital in Canada after completing a fellowship in Parkinson’s Disease, a post-doctoral course under one of the best specialists in the world. This senior and famous gynaecologist with a large hospital had referred a case, I had seen the patient, after which he, the senior OBGY, had come to my room. I had spent over an hour studying the patient’s symptoms, and conducted the most difficult and extensive of all clinical examinations in medicine: the complete neurological examination. I had, like all doctors trained well by their teachers, deliberated the possibilities (what the doctors call ‘differential diagnosis’), and then come to this conclusion. There are no shortcuts in medicine, and I took pride in not missing any details. © Dr. Rajas Deshpande
I was open to the idea of my diagnosis being wrong. No doctor is above the patient, and ego cannot be a factor while making a diagnosis. But the ease with which this senior doctor had refuted my diagnosis without so much as touching the patient really offended me.
Obviously, this senior OBGY wanted to impress the patient by showing “I know better Neurology than this junior doctor”. The patient and his family were quite close to that senior doctor and had deep trust in his opinion. The look on their face changed immediately. They no more cared for what I had to say. My first response was anger. Then I remembered what one of my great professors had imbibed upon me: You cannot match the tendencies of some idiots. State your point, smile and leave. Truth will unmask itself in all medical cases.
“What do you think this patient has, Sir?” I asked.
“Maybe he is just tired mentally” the senior doctor said, and the family bobble-headed in assertion.
“I disagree with you Sir”. I said firmly, “All my findings are written on that paper, the patient can go to any qualified Neurologist. Only they can identify or treat such cases well”. I left the room without waiting for his infamous wise wordplay. Three years later, the same patient returned in a wheelchair, referred by another physician, and is now improving with treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The fact that he was deprived of correct treatment for over three years will remain a dark medical secret. © Dr. Rajas Deshpande
Two years ago, a seventeen year old boy was brought by his parents. He had fits, we had started him on anticonvulsants. Adequate instructions were given to reluctant parents, and the dangers of stopping medicine were explained. They never returned. Last month, his parents came. Few months ago, they were told by some doctor to stop the anticonvulsants, and start on some herbal supplements. “We thought let us try” the parents said, and stopped his medicine. The boy had a fit while sitting in his 9th floor balcony, fell and died with a head injury.
Many such cases, where light-gossipy comments by unqualified doctors about the (correct) ongoing diagnosis or treatment being wrong kill many patients with heart attacks, strokes, other heart and brain diseases, liver and kidney failures, cause worsening of otherwise treatable cancers, blood and bone diseases, and many more conditions in almost all specialties of medicine. Patients sadly prefer to choose what is convenient and cheap. Some doctors make personal comments about other doctors being wrong, corrupt, charging high, having no experience etc. Some doctors rely solely upon a “Low Fees and Sweet Talk (LFST)” formula of practice and keep on defaming the entire profession, gradually brain-washing a frightened, confused and frustrated patient. Unfortunately, many patients, both literate and illiterate, easily fall prey to such tactics. © Dr. Rajas Deshpande
What if the diagnosis is really wrong? We often meet smartypants (and smartyskirts!) medicos who just go on challenging any and every diagnosis made by others, be it their specialty or not. A simple understanding of one’s own capacity is enough marker of the intellectual level of that person for me (recall the famous Dunning Kruger Effect). To translate this crudely, stupids seldom realise they are being stupid. They create confusion and wise wordplay to dilute the reality. It is only the idiotic ignoramuses among doctors who cannot ever say “I don’t understand, you know better”.
Medicine is a logical, scientific methodology of algorithms. If a doctor thinks someone else is wrong, they must first state in writing their own examination findings, diagnosis and reasons to refute someone else’s diagnosis. Then they should explain this to the patient, and then start treatment in view of their own diagnosis, taking responsibility if that turns out wrong, and telling the patient so too. It is also an offence in the rules of medical councils to defame a fellow practitioner.
Every person in every field makes mistakes, even the best minds. It is no secret that every doctor, however qualified or experienced, makes a wrong diagnosis many times in his / her career. In most cases these are simple analytical/ judgement mistakes, rarely dangerous. To concentrate on one’s own specialty, and to refrain from pretending being an expert in “all other specialties” is the key to becoming a great doctor, especially in these days of information flooding and subspecialty training. To say that someone else is wrong, a doctor should be equally or better qualified in that subject. Age has nothing to do with it.
In a hyper-emotional, media biased, politically influenced and mostly illiterate country like India, most doctors, however straightforward and honest, find it difficult to frankly tell about their own mistakes to the patient, as the reactions and defamation are out of proportion and our law is primitive still in this field. Sometimes when the patient is capable of understanding it, I have seen many doctors, surgeons explain their mistake and the patient graciously accepting that it wasn’t intentional. This is rare though. © Dr. Rajas Deshpande
We must educate the society in general that no doctor who says “earlier doctors were wrong” or speaks ill of fellow practitioners can ever be a good doctor. The patient should first ask such a doctor “ Have you never been wrong?” and listen to the wise wordplay that follows! While we often blame patients who are arrogant, those who do not trust treating doctors, those who google-treat themselves, and in general bring stress to the medical practitioner, we must first also look inwards for our faults that have multiplied and amplified such perceptions by the society.
What hurts me most is that this is almost exclusively an Indian phenomenon.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
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