In clinical practice, doctors personally assess patients in order to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease using clinical judgment. The doctor-patient relationship typically begins an interaction with an examination of the patient’s medical history and medical record, followed by a medical interview and a physical examination. Basic diagnostic medical devices (e.g. stethoscope, tongue depressor) are typically used. After examination for signs and interviewing for symptoms, the doctor may order medical tests (e.g. blood tests), take a biopsy, or prescribe pharmaceutical drugs or other therapies. Differential diagnosis methods help to rule out conditions based on the information provided. During the encounter, properly informing the patient of all relevant facts is an important part of the relationship and the development of trust. The medical encounter is then documented in the medical record, which is a legal document in many jurisdictions. Follow-ups may be shorter but follow the same general procedure.
The components of the medical interview and encounter are:
The physical examination is the examination of the patient for signs of disease (‘Symptoms’ are what the patient volunteers, ‘Signs’ are what the health care provider detects by examination). The health care provider uses the senses of sight, hearing, touch, and sometimes smell (e.g., in infection, uremia, diabetic ketoacidosis). Four actions are taught as the basis of physical examination: inspection, palpation (feel), percussion (tap to determine resonance characteristics), and auscultation (listen). This order may be modified depending on the main focus of the examination (e.g., a joint may be examined by simply “look, feel, move”. Having this set order is an educational tool that encourages practitioners to be systematic in their approach and refrain from using tools such as the stethoscope before they have fully evaluated the other modalities).
The clinical examination involves the study of:
It is to likely focus on areas of interest highlighted in the medical history and may not include everything listed above.
Laboratory and imaging studies results may be obtained, if necessary.
The medical decision-making (MDM) process involves analysis and synthesis of all the above data to come up with a list of possible diagnoses (the differential diagnoses), along with an idea of what needs to be done to obtain a definitive diagnosis that would explain the patient’s problem.
The treatment plan may include ordering additional laboratory tests and studies, starting therapy, referral to a specialist, or watchful observation. Follow-up may be advised.
This process is used by primary care providers as well as specialists. It may take only a few minutes if the problem is simple and straightforward. On the other hand, it may take weeks in a patient who has been hospitalized with bizarre symptoms or multi-system problems, with involvement by several specialists.
On subsequent visits, the process may be repeated in an abbreviated manner to obtain any new history, symptoms, physical findings, and lab or imaging results or specialist consultations.