In medicine, unlike much of the world, it is the questions one doesn’t ask that lead to trouble. When taking a medical history, the biggest enemies are time and fear. Time, because there is never enough to ask all the questions, listen carefully to all the answers, and pursue all the possible clues. Fear, because the natural reluctance to ask certain questions is a trap.
I was taught that being an asymptomatic carrier of strep in the throat was not associated with either illness or risk of complications. That’s not always true. The schedule said ‘strep throat x 5 weeks and diarrhea.’ Handing me the encounter form, my nurse warned me: ‘Mom’s not a happy camper.’
Throughout our medical training we are told again and again that the most important task is an accurate diagnosis. And we hear it at CME lectures and read it in journals. An accurate diagnosis is certainly essential if one wants to offer successful and safe treatment. But it is not enough to ask and answer: “What is the diagnosis?”
There are several other questions that every experienced clinician asks - and answers - with every visit. Or should ask. We skip these questions at considerable risk to our patients.
A recent commentary in the New York Times eloquently addressed the phenomenon of psychiatric diagnoses biasing clinicians and resulting in poor care. One concern that arose in the comments was that this might increase the likelihood that patients would withhold crucial diagnostic and therapeutic information, to their detriment.
Not all errors have negative consequences. Many go unnoticed. Occasionally they save lives.