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Past simple or present perfect: Which is appropriate for diagnoses?

Past simple or present perfect

Tense is an important part of grammar and essential to clear clinical communication. Learn the two situations that can help you decide to use either past simple or present perfect. 

Many candidates feel unsure about deciding when to use past simple or present perfect. At OET, we’re often asked which tense is appropriate when writing about a patient’s diagnosis.

We have some advice about this that also applies to other common healthcare verbs including prescribe, undergo and treat.

Deciding which tense to use

To decide which tense is correct, you need to think about the timeline for the situation you are comparing to now (the time when you are writing the letter).

Past tense is used when describing an event in the past which is resolved e.g. Mrs F gave birth five weeks ago. By using the past tense, the meaning we are communicating to the reader is that the baby has arrived and there have been no ante-natal complications from the birth

Past tense can be used in a similar way with diagnosed e.g. Mr G was diagnosed with pneumonia and treated with antibiotics prior to discharge last week. This communicates to the reader that the pneumonia is now resolved.

It’s also possible to use past tense when the situation is ongoing but is stable i.e. diabetes that is well-managed with medication e.g. Miss J was diagnosed with diabetes in 1998, for which she takes regular medication. Although this patient still has diabetes, the diagnosis is considered a complete event now that the condition is stabilised.

Using present Perfect

So when would we use the present perfect with diagnosed?

There are two main situations.

Situation one: When the condition is unstable

For example, Mr H has been diagnosed with asthma and prescribed an inhaler. He will return to the Outpatient clinic next month for a review of the inhaler’s effectiveness.

This communicates that the asthma treatment is still being finalised. If the inhaler doesn’t prove effective, then a different treatment will be considered.

Situation two: When the condition will be news to the reader.

This is particularly true when the reader already knows the patient and so you are telling them something new e.g. Miss W was admitted to hospital 3 days ago. She has been diagnosed with unstable angina and requires your follow-up care. This communicates that the diagnosis is news to the reader and how they will be involved going forward.


Can you complete these sentences with the correct form of the verb in brackets?

  • She (underwent/has undergone) surgery to pin the fracture, which was confirmed to be successful by a post-operative X-ray.
  • He (was prescribed/has been prescribed) Panadeine Forte and encouraged to take this as required for the next 7 days.
  • Initially, she (was treated/has been treated) with IV saline and alginate dressings on the burn sites. The burns are healing well and silicone dressings (were applied/ have been applied) which will need changing 4 days after discharge.

OET Writing Guide