How to report symptoms to the doctor

All healing begins with an accurate diagnosis, yet errors are common. So common that most of us are likely to experience at least one diagnostic error in our lifetime. The Institute of Medicine reports that diagnostic errors play a role in 10% of all deaths.

How we describe symptoms to the doctor can go a long way in helping the doctor make an accurate diagnosis.

Doctors are taught to look for eight characteristics in a symptom. Help the doctor zero in on what’s wrong with your loved one by considering these eight questions:

  • Where is the pain (or other symptom)?
  • What is the symptom like? Describe its qualities. Does it feel dull? Fiery? Sharp? Tingly? Does it radiate from one spot to another?
  • How severe is the pain (or other sensation)? What is it at its worst? (On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most intense.) At its best? Right now (the moment of the appointment)?
  • When did the symptom first occur? Does it come and go? If so, how often? How long does each episode last?
  • What do you think caused the symptom to start? What was going on when it began? Any specific movement or activity? Was there an accident? A new medication? New shoes or new chair? Upsetting life event?
  • What makes it better? Heat? Cold? Lying down? Is it better in the morning? Later in the day?
  • What makes it worse? Eating? Riding in the car? Is it affected by any specific activity?
  • Are there other symptoms too? Such as nausea or dizziness? Trouble breathing? Fatigue?

By providing information about these eight factors, you are helping the doctor arrive at the right diagnosis in the shortest amount of time.