Are You Seeing the Right Specialist?

Sometimes the frustration of a misdiagnosis or being undiagnosed stems from the fact that a patient is seeing the wrong kind of specialist, one who doesn't understand the body system the patient's real medical problem stems from.

Medical team sanding in a sunny room together, all blurred in the background
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Consider Lydia, who complained of stomach pains for several weeks. She visited her primary care doctor who referred her to a gastroenterologist. A gastroenterologist is a specialist who takes care of our digestive systems—everything from the stomach through the intestines through the colon.

The gastroenterologist sent Lydia for some tests, and when the results came back, he told Lydia he didn't see any problems. He prescribed a drug to help control the nausea, and Lydia went home, hoping the nausea would go away.

Weeks went by, and Lydia's stomach upset continued to get worse. She returned to the gastroenterologist who ran more tests, but he still was not able to identify her problem. She returned to her primary care doctor who told her he couldn't find anything either.

At the point where she began to dehydrate from vomiting, Lydia's husband took her to the emergency room. A CT scan revealed ovarian cancer.

The primary care doctor had missed it. The gastroenterologist had missed it. Both were focused on the digestive system and stomach upset and didn't consider a problem that might stem from Lydia's female reproductive system.

How Did That Happen?

Specialists spend the majority of their time in medical school and training focusing on their area of specialty. They learn the intricacies of their chosen body system, the diseases and conditions that affect their chosen body system, and the ways to heal their chosen body system. They spend years concentrating on that specialty. Once they finish medical training, they continue learning about their one specific body system by reading medical journals that address the same body system, networking with other physicians in their specialty areas, and attending conferences and additional coursework that furthers their knowledge about their body system.

Because they concentrate so completely on that one body system, they don't learn the intricacies of the other body systems, or they lose focus on them. If a patient comes to them with familiar-to-their-specialty symptoms, but they can't figure out what the problem is, they often don't think to send the patient to a different specialist.

Many patients are surprised by this. Most of us assume that doctors have learned all the general information they need before they specialize. Some do, but not all. And often, that lack of general knowledge stands between a patient and her true diagnosis.

In Lydia's case, her real medical problem would have been accurately diagnosed by a gynecologist. But neither her primary care physician nor her gastroenterologist realized they needed to send her to a GYN.

If you are having trouble getting a diagnosis, or if you think you may have been misdiagnosed, consider other body systems that may be causing your problems. You can get a general idea of possibilities by using a website symptom checker. There are additional websites that help patients research symptoms.

You may have to spend some time doing this research yourself at first. Once you find some evidence that sounds appropriate to your symptoms, you can compare the information you find to any medical test results you have, too.

Then take all your evidence to your primary care doctor, share your thoughts with them, ask them what other body system might be responsible for your symptoms, and what other type of specialist might be able to help you determine what your real diagnosis should be.