13Have you ever gone to the doctor and felt like you were misdiagnosed? Maybe you didn't feel like your physician was listening to your concerns or they weren't providing enough information for you to make an informed decision. Doctors train for years to try to figure out what ails with someone, but sometimes, they make mistakes. And those mistakes can greatly impact a patient's life—just ask these people.
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#1 Told it's a Headache
I can’t count how many “I was told it was a headache but I just wanted to come in and have it looked at in case it was something else” cases I’ve seen. Of course, those are the patients that are the nicest and are profusely apologizing for “wasting our time," and of course, those are the patients that have a brain tumor show up on their CT scans...
#2 Metal Shards
One guy was told he had pink eye. After a second opinion, it turned out that he had metal shards in his eye from welding.
Dermatologist here. I have seen probably five instances of “My other doctor told me it was fine” that were melanomas. A lot of times people don’t want a full skin exam. There are lots of perfectly sane reasons for this, time, perceived cost, history of personal trauma. However, I routinely find cancers people don’t know they have. Keep this in mind if you see a dermatologist for acne and they recommend you get in a gown.
#4 Traumatic Injury
I got a moderate traumatic brain injury in October and the week after I got home from the hospital I wasn't acting like myself. I was refusing to eat and just didn't make much sense. My mom called the doctor a few times they said it was normal but to take me in if anything changed. She took me in on the Saturday a week later because I started slurring my speech and was unsteady on my feet. The injury caused my sodium levels to drop from 140 (normal) to 119. This, in turn, caused stroke-like symptoms which were, in reality, a series of small seizures.
#5 Lung Cancer
I literally just admitted this lady to ICU. She had been coughing for ages, had a 60 lb weight loss, and was a smoker for 50 years. Now, she can't breathe and I got a CT 6cm mass that looks very suspicious for lung cancer. And the doctors just gave her vitamin D/E even though she was losing massive weight and coughing up.
#6 Breast Cancer
I'm a nurse. At a clinic, a lady came in for breast pain with a lump. The doctor told her it was a sprained muscle and to go away. When he left the room, I told her the name of one of our other doctors that specializes in women’s health. I told her she could not let this go. She saw him and he referred her for some radiology and that’s how they found her breast cancer. She later told us all this in a sweet card she sent telling us if I hadn’t told her to advocate for herself she may not have followed up.
#7 Colon Cancer
Another guy who came in looked pale as a ghost. The chief complaint was fatigue. One lab test later found out his hemoglobin was four (barely on the cusp of survival). It seems like he had iron deficiency anemia for years. The doctor gave him some iron, he got better, but no one looked into WHY he got it (The first, second and third reason in an older guy is colon cancer). He died four months later from metastatic colon cancer.
As a kid, I've had meningitis and I nearly died. The neck stiffness is inexplicably painful and quite a unique sensation. You can absolutely tell this is not normal neck pain and something different and sinister. As soon as I experienced it, I was quite sure I had meningitis. It took quite a while for the doctors to get on borfd with me but eventually, they started to listen.
#9 Migraine Gone Wrong
I'm not a doctor, but I'm glad my parents took me in for a second opinion when I was complaining about a bad headache when I was 15 years old. I left school one day and went to the hospital for a bad headache. The doctor said it's "just a virus" and that I should just rest and take meds.
I went home, laid down and took some Advil and carried on with my night. Around 1 a.m., I was screaming on the floor. My parents took me to a different hospital and they ran tests and eventually did a spinal tap and discovered a ton of white blood cells. Turns out I had bacterial meningitis.
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#10 Benefit of the Doubt
Most of the time, the fact that the patient has gone looking for a second opinion or another consult tells you about their level of concern and changes your management. Doctor #1 might see a patient with two days of low abdo pain and (correctly) reassure the patient that it's probably nothing and come back in a week if symptoms continue. The patient then goes to Doctor #2 a couple of days later, more worried and cheesed off at #1. With the increased level of concern, #2 then orders an ultrasound that reveals Ovarian Cancer. The issue here is that both doctors are correct.
The next abdominal pain that comes in to see either doctor at 2 days of symptoms will still receive reassurance as their primary treatment, because it will most likely be something simple like constipation or cramping. Giving every patient with simple symptoms an ultrasound is not economically feasible. I would hope that any diagnoses I've missed or mismanaged (and I assume there's been a few) were picked up by another doctor and that they also gave me the benefit of the doubt.
#11 Multiple Sclerosis
Had a patient come in for therapy after his PCM yelled at him for being a hypochondriac. He said his symptoms were all in his head and that he was just trying to fish for disability. His symptoms were pretty obviously neurological so I referred him for an MRI (to my shock he had only ever had x-rays). Sadly, I had to tell the 19-year-old man that he had Multiple Sclerosis. With great satisfaction, I got to tell that PCM he dun goofed and that I would be talking to our mutual Chief of Clinical services about the incident.
#12 Saved His Eye
Mid 30's man walks into my office with what looks like a black eye and a broken vessel in the front of his left eye. He went to his primary and it was simply assumed that he got punched or hit or something, and he was dismissed. He was noted to have high blood pressure, but a script for medicine was written and a follow up in a few months.
Gentleman comes in to see me to get another opinion on the matter and I look at him and immediately start the line of questions: How long has it been there, do you have a headache, and when you plug your ears with your fingers do you hear a "wooshing" sound? He had a cavernous sinus fistula (CCF). I sent him directly to the emergency room with his family of four in tow and he was in the OR within an hour of arriving. Saved his eye and possibly his life that day.
#13 Heart Block
ER nurse here. I had a lady in for simple pneumonia. Her 13-year-old son was getting bored, so I showed him some equipment. I connected a simple heart monitor to him and discovered he was in a complete heart block. I printed a strip and showed it to the doc. We suddenly and unexpectedly got a cardiac patient.
#14 Gut Feeling
Former ER volunteer here. An elderly gentleman was brought in by his concerned adult children for chest pain. He wanted to believe his primary doctor that it was just some gas or heartburn, but his son "just had a gut feeling" and made him go to the ER with everyone so he could get checked out. A heart attack was imminent, like, we weren't sure if treatment would take effect in time to prevent it. We declared code blue, all hands on deck. The place went from a quiet, empty ER to sheer chaos in a few minutes. There is no doubt in my mind that that "gut feeling" saved his life.
#15 Not Normal
A 22-year-old guy came in after seeing his primary at another hospital. His mom was my patient and asked if I would see him (I am an Internal Med doc). He had told his doctor he had a headache. I did a usual full review of symptoms since he was new and he also marked his left testicle had a lump. We did an exam and he had a hard small lump on his testicle. We knew right away he likely had metastatic testicular cancer. One stat brain scan and testicular ultrasound later confirmed it. I asked him if he told another doctor about the lump and he said yes but the other doctor told him it was normal.
#16 Nurse Saved Her
My friend's mom had nausea and was extremely tired. My friend insisted they go to the doctor, but the mom refused. My friend just knew it was a heart attack, so she called their neighbor who is a nurse and sure enough, as soon as the neighbor walks through the door, her mom collapsed. It's been four years and the mom's great. She quit smoking, retired, and lives the life (and still makes the best potato pancakes I've ever had). Don't ignore your gut feeling!
#17 Dark Spots
Not a doctor, but I heard my son's doctor say this. I took him to the ER late one night because of coughing and a high fever. They took an X-ray, gave him IBUPROFEN, and told us he was fine. The doctor showed me the X rays to prove it and gave me a dirty look when I asked what the dark spots were.
I told her she was an idiot and took him to urgent care four hours later. The doctor that saw him immediately diagnosed him with pneumonia and confirmed with X-rays. I flat out refused to pay for the ER visit and told them that if the persisted with collections I would push their incompetence. They never called me again.
#18 Collapsed Lung
This actually happened a few weeks ago. My sister went to urgent care because she had a bad cough and was having trouble breathing. They said it was a virus and gave her antibiotics. My mom took her to her primary doctor who confirmed it. Ten days later she wasn’t better, so my mom took her back and INSISTED she get an x-Ray.
The doctor said, “I don’t know why you brought her back in, it’s just a cough.” Turns out her entire right lung was collapsed, which showed on the x-Ray. It had been for almost two weeks. The doctor called us and said, “you need to go to the ER right now.” And then began an emergency surgery in the ER. She was admitted to the hospital for a week, and had another surgery two days later.
#19 Life-Saving Surgery
I had a guy come in for a second opinion after the first place didn’t bother asking any medical history. Of course, I took his history and asked more questions as we went. I remember telling him something felt off and we needed to run a test. So I ordered a peripheral vision test.
When I got the test back, I was shocked by the most classic tumor pattern I’d ever seen. Two weeks later, he was in surgery to get it removed. A month after, this guy was back in my clinic thanking me. Totally different guy. Personality was a complete 180, energetic and happy.
#20 Maligned Patients
A bulk of my career lately seems to be maligned patients with legitimate medical issues who've been labeled as hypochondriacs and sent through for a psych workup and meds/counseling. People with histories of all kinds of endocrine issues, like thyroid cancer/thyroidectomy patients, who see someone once every two years about their thyroid and never have labs checked or med dosages fixed.
Or diabetics with poorly controlled sugars, people who've had bowels surgeries and take time release meds, and then wonder why they aren't working. The piece meal system of health care in the U.S. is really doing such a disservice to actual humans. So many specialists and no one piecing together the big picture.
#21 Rare Small Cell Lung Cancer
A lady was referred to me after two weeks of being treated for a red painful eye. The PA and MDs that saw her tried allergy meds and antibiotics, thinking it was allergic or bacterial conjunctivitis or hoping it was mild viral that would resolve on its own. So I took one look at her and knew it was a herpes simplex infection in her cornea.
She was in pain and had been mistreated for 2 weeks. Got her on anti virals, but after discussing how it was odd she didn’t have any active herpetic sores, but had a really bad cough that the ER said was just pneumonia and would go away with antibiotics. I told her to get it checked with a pulmonologist because it didn’t sound like pneumonia and it wasn’t getting better. I saw her three months later to monitor her corneal appearance and she came in using a wheelchair.
Turns out the pulmonologist was blown away that the ER had dismissed her. She had a really rare small cell lung cancer. The reason the herpes infection manifested in the first place was her immune system was compromised. She told me the pulmonologist said I’d saved her life because they caught it early. It’s been a bit over a year. She’s still undergoing treatment but her spirits are strong and she’s optimistic as is the pulmonologist.
#22 Heart Attack
A guy in his late 20s comes in complaining about chest pain. Nurses and the first ER doc write him off. They ran an EKG and didn't interpret the results correctly because it was subtle. But when he got ahold of them, he was having a heart attack...
#23 Broken Neck
My girlfriend is an ER doc. A hippie type guy came in a week after a bike accident. He'd been treated and released by another hospital. He was complaining of some neck pain. She immediately had him back boarded and ordered X-rays. The X-ray tech called her and asked why, when he had been treated across town, were they X-raying a guy who was obviously indigent. "Because his neck is broken. OK?" She was right. If he had tripped on a door mat and fallen, he would have likely been paralyzed.
#24 Liver Enzymes
A 14-year-old girl was discharged from another hospital for being "combative." She was brought into my friend's hospital because her mom was persistent. Her liver enzyme count was 10,000! Normal is like 10-40 for AST. He put two and two together and immediately gave her Acetylcysteine (Tylenol antidote). Turns out, the girl tried to end her own life.
#25 Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
I’m not a doctor but I originally went into the doctors because I was really tired. The doctor waved it off but my mom insisted I should get a CBC (complete blood count), they found that my platelets were extremely low which resulted in them running additional tests to find that I actually had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. No idea to this day why my mom made me go back to get a CBC but I’m grateful.
#26 Bipolar Disorder and ADHD
At one of my practica placements, I conduct psychological evaluations for children and adults referred by the court system, typically following court-mandated removal. The referrals almost always ask for differential diagnoses and treatment recommendations. Many of the children have previous psychiatric diagnoses and are prescribed a slew of medications. In this sense, the psychological evaluation is a comprehensive “second opinion” that requires me to sort through previous diagnoses, background information, and data from the assessments I administer. I would say that the most common misdiagnoses that I see among children are Bipolar Disorder and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
#27 Impossible to be Thorough
I'm going to say this as a doctor. It's honestly scary every day how many patients I see are completely mismanaged. Some doctors in urgent care see 45 patients in a day. How is that possible to be thorough? Like if only patients knew what the doctors missed or whatnot... half the time, I really think it's like going to a bad auto shop and not realizing they're just making half the stuff up. The same thing happens in medicine and except people's lives suffer because of it.
#28 Something Wasn't Right
I'm a primary care doctor who had a two-year-old refugee girl in who had a sore throat, and something just didn't sit right with me. It could have been easy to just say she was under the weather but she sort of was holding herself too stiffly and breathing too consciously. Anyway, particularly with the language barrier, I sent them to the emergency room because I was concerned there might be a foreign body in her throat and I didn't have the proper tools to look, and it turns out there was—she had swallowed a button battery and it was eating through her esophagus. One more day and she very well may have died.
A bit of background: in my field of audiology, we have people licensed to diagnose not only hearing issues but balance disorders and other factors impacting listening and understanding. We also have another field who popped up when it was not considered as ethical for us to treat those more serious hearing issues (i.e. with hearing aids) but they don’t need the same doctorate level training, just barely high school or some college depending on jurisdiction.
So I had a patient come in with a serious difference between left and right hearing and this in itself is considered a red flag because both ears are exposed to the same things over time... and there are very few explanations as to why one would get so bad. The patient could hardly understand words on that bad side and the better ear was pretty good overall, just minor hearing loss perhaps age-related.
Immediately upon seeing these test results, the ENT and I agreed to send this patient for an MRI of the head because something was off. The patient confirmed no MRI or medical treatment had been recommended in the past and only hearing aids by this lesser-trained hearing aid dealer (working for a popular U.S. chain). The patient had been wearing these hearing aids already for a few years. The MRI results came back. There was a massive tumor on the hearing nerve. The hearing aid dealer is being investigated currently for malpractice (or more specifically a violation of state laws regarding red flags).
#30 "Foot Athlete"
I had a patient that was being treated for nine months or so for what his physician referred to as “foot athlete” (patient’s words), and just as anyone would expect, he was taking terbinafine and applying isoconazol ointment. The problem? He didn’t had fungus, he had a damn diabetic ulcer with necrotic borders already, I had to do surgery and luckily he saved the foot.
#31 Thank God for Second Opinions
My grandmother had her hip replaced, but the hip always hurt to her. She waited a year, hoping it would go away but it never did, she asked multiple doctors and did multiple X-rays but doctors said the replaced hip was fine. We finally made her go to a private clinic in my hometown, and the doctor saw that the replaced hip was fine and dandy, but the bone around it looked like it was a tad bit eaten by bacteria.
So the new doc did an operation, and there was so much pus in the leg it was insane. If my grandmother waited any longer, her blood would become infected and she would have died. Thank goodness she went to the clinic.
#32 Undiagnosed Cancer
I was about to tell a patient to go home and rest from running and carefully stretch his groin. A colleague came in and noticed that the patient had testicular cancer.
#33 Bronchitis, but Really Heart Failure
People who get diagnosed with "bronchitis" when they have heart failure and literally drowning in fluid. There are doctors who give antibiotics and steroids for everything especially when they have no idea what's going on. Maybe I'm biased because I work at an academic center, so I see all the cases who get referred in because they're too sick or no one can figure out but at least a few times a week I'm like wow this person could have been saved or not end up this way if someone cared enough earlier on.
#34 Chest Pain and Shortness of Breath
I'm an ER unit clerk. One time, a young guy came in complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. He had been to an ER across town and had been sent home with nothing done to help him. One X-ray obviously showed he had a collapsed lung. The doctor that saw him was a kind of sleepy old guy who I had never seen show any emotion. When he found this out, he was SO EXCITED and literally danced around the trauma room. Then I got to watch him put in a chest tube. It was a good day.
#35 Multiple Hairline Fractures
I was like 10 and my parents took me to the doctor because I thought I broke my leg skateboarding. He said it was a third-degree sprain and told me it'd be fine. I pointed outlines in the X-ray and he said they were nothing. I somehow convinced my mom to take me somewhere else and they confirmed I had multiple hairline fractures in my growth plate.
#36 Multiple Tumors
My dad went to the same ear doctor for around nine years due to poor hearing and was told there was nothing wrong. When he finally went to a second doctor, they referred him to the hospital and found tumors in his ears that had eaten entirely through his inner ear bones and ear drums. He needed four operations to remove them, one every six months. If the second doctor hadn't offered their opinion, he would probably have had tumours eating through the back of his skull into his brain.
#37 Pelvic Pain
My wife went to ER for pain in her pelvic region. The ultrasound showed a mass, probably an ovarian cyst they said. It will pop in time. Leave it alone. We went to the doctor about a week later and she had a surgery to pull it out maybe a month later. They did a biopsy on the mass. It was ovarian CANCER. she is now cancer-free but what the heck!
#38 Fractured Spine
I had a fall and went to the emergency room complaining that my arm and back hurt. I had an Xray and they found a fractured wrist. Cool, now what about my back? The doctor felt around my back and said, "Knots and tight muscles mate, get a massage, it'll help." I wasn't gonna waste money on a massage, and went to my GP a bit of a while later and complained the pain was just getting worse. She ordered scans of my back. Turns out I'd fractured a part of my spine in the fall, too.
#39 Bad Asthma
Last month I was about to take a long trip across the pacific. One hour into the flight, they asked for a doctor... I volunteer myself. I see this lady literally gasping for air... like waving her hands in the air because she can't breathe. I look through her meds... she's obviously an asthmatic. I listen to her lungs and faint wheezing, there's no air movement at all. I later grounded that plane because there was another sixteen hours to go and she was on the verge of being intubated.
Later, I got more of the story from her family members. Apparently, she hadn't been able to sleep well for the past two weeks. The doctor just gave her sleeping meds... more and more of it. And told her flying was no problem. I asked the family why she couldn't sleep. Is it because she wakes up in the middle of the night gasping for air (which is a classic sign of uncontrolled asthma)? They said yes and asked how I knew. Sleeping meds were probably among the worst things she could have gotten.
#40 Retinal Detachment
I worked up a patient once who said he had some floaters in his vision. He stated his optometrist said it was normal but he was going crazy trying to see through them all. We did some tests and he had a full blown retinal detachment. The guy could have lost vision in that eye forever due to negligence. I'm glad he came to see an opthalmologist that day.
#41 A Big Surprise
I'm an emergency medicine doctor in the midwest U.S. The patient was transferred from rural nowhere to our tertiary care facility (big hospital with every specialist). The call was of really bad quality, but the transferring physician described a 21-year-old male that had rapid heart rate and breathing rate, low blood pressure, low oxygen, confusion, and a severe opacification on his chest X-ray on the right side. They diagnosed pneumonia.
He gave him a ton of fluids, started antibiotics, put him on a ventilator, but he wasn't getting better and they wanted to send him to us. Sure, send away. An hour later, the gentleman arrived and looked young, fit, and not the type to just drop from pneumonia. We rolled him onto our stretcher and found... a huge stab wound in his back. The X-ray finding was his entire right chest full of blood. We put a tube in it and he had to go for surgery. He was fine.
#42 27-Weeks Pregnant
The patient went to their family doctor with abdominal pain. Their bio sheet said “male." The family doctor thought nothing of it, assuming it was just gas or bloating and prescribed dicyclomine. The patient came to me for a second opinion and I knew this individual was a post-op FtM individual and after some suggested tests, we found out the patient was 27 weeks pregnant.
#43 Severely Psychotic
Psychiatrist here. A 30-year-old man with mild depressive symptoms was in-and-out of the hospital fairly quickly. He was under pressure from his home life, living with four roommates who were making life a bit difficult for him. He was cleared of all psychopathologies by me and two other doctors. A few months later, he came back. Same symptoms, however this time he talked about five roommates. It felt wrong and I dug into his story. I tried to contact his roommates. He lived alone and was severely psychotic. I have no idea to this day how he hid it so well from everyone.
#44 Lost Tampon
We had a patient that came in because she felt like she had lost a tampon after putting it in... three weeks ago. She had gone to see her PCP and been to an emergency department about this and they didn’t find anything. She had some addiction problems so they didn't take her seriously. I didn’t really expect to find anything, but there it was...
#45 A Serious Ulcer
I had a guy come in because he bumped his leg on a ladder a couple of weeks ago. He had a sore with a bandage on top. I asked him to remove it and there was a stage four necrotizing ulcer under. Like, textbook. If he didn't come in to "see what the docs said" he would easily have gone septic within several days. Kids, if your skin turns black or comes off to reveal a giant hole... GO TO AN ER!