Diagnosis and Prognosis – What does it mean?


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Have you ever heard a doctor use the words diagnosis and prognosis and wonder what the difference was? Although they sound alike, they refer to different aspects of the medical condition you or your loved one is experiencing.

A diagnosis is the decision the doctor makes about what the illness is. When you first tell the doctor what problems or symptoms a loved one has, he uses them as clues to determine the illness causing them. Just like a detective, the doctor has to sort out the facts. He performs an examination and often orders special tests to confirm or eliminate his suspicions. Finally, he is able to diagnose, or name, the condition.

Medical conditions can be broken down into several categories.

  • A chronic, progressive, or degenerative disease (i.e., Alzheimer’s, Arthritis, Osteoporosis)
  • A life- threatening illness (i.e., Cancer, Heart Attack, Stroke)
  • A medical condition requiring surgery (i.e., internal bleeding, cataracts )
  • A medical risk or concern (i.e., High Cholesterol, High Blood Pressure)
  • An injury or illness (i.e., broken bone, the flu)

Once the doctor determines what illness is causing the problem, she can plan a treatment program. Then, she goes one step farther and tells us what progress we can expect to make from that treatment. Based on the doctor’s understanding of the medical condition, the typical success rate of the treatment, and our age, physical condition and a number of other indicators, the doctor predicts how we will progress over time. This prediction of progress is called a prognosis.

It can be upsetting and sometimes shocking to receive a diagnosis of disease, whether we expect it or not. But in addition to the shock comes the realization that our loved one may face new challenges and have to learn new ways of living, sometimes temporarily, sometimes long term. Questions flood our minds… What do we do now? How can I help? What support and care will he need?

When trying to decide what support your loved one needs, it’s important to fully understand the prognosis. How will this medical condition and its treatment affect my loved one? Ask the doctor about how she thinks the condition will affect his/her ability in the following areas:

  • Physical strength
  • Mobility, coordination, reflexes
  • Hygiene and personal care
  • Sight, hearing
  • Memory and reasoning
  • Decision making
  • Anxiety and fear management
  • Activities and favorite pass-times
  • Medication maintenance
  • Ability to live independently

These limitations may increase or diminish over time depending on the ailment. Most medical conditions develop in one of three ways.

  1. A sudden, unexpected onset from which, with proper treatment, the person is expected to make a complete recovery. (broken bone, ear infection )
  2. A sudden, unexpected onset of an illness that will progress over time (Heart failure or a stroke)
  3. A condition that occurs gradually and is expected to progress over time (Alzheimer’s disease, Osteoporosis, Arthritis)

Once you understand your loved one’s limitations and the likely progression of the ailment, you can make better decisions about a care program for him.

In addition to consulting with the doctor about the specific circumstances of your situation, it often helps to do additional research about the condition you are facing. Many national organizations exist that provide information about various medical conditions, and they can also refer you to resources and support services available in your area. Don’t be shy or afraid to reach out to professionals who can help. Contact any organizations that apply to your loved one’s situation. The table below lists several organizations that offer information about many major medical conditions.


National Health Organizations

Alzheimer’s Association www.alz.org 800-272-3900
American Cancer Society www.cancer.org 800-227-2345
American Diabetes Association www.diabetes.org 800-342-2383
American Heart Association www.americanheart.org 800-242-8721
American Lung Association www.lungusa.org 800-548-8252
American Stroke Association www.strokeassociation.org 888-478-7653
Arthritis Foundation www.arthritis.org 800-283-7800
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society www.leukemia.org 800-955-4572
National Osteoporosis Foundation www.nof.org 202-223-2226
Parkinson’s Disease Foundation www.pdf.org 800-457-6676

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