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Common Misdiagnoses Doctors Make

After years in school, exams, licensing boards, residency, fellowships, and experience, doctors have a lot of education and training to help them make the right diagnosis. Doctors also have a lot of tools at their disposal, including imaging, blood tests, and consultations with other specialists. Unfortunately, even with all these resources, doctors can make the wrong diagnosis. 

When a misdiagnosis leaves a patient untreated for the correct condition, or the patient is unnecessarily treated for something they don’t have, it can lead to serious injury. Medical malpractice occurs when a doctor fails to provide the standard of care, that causes an injury, and results in damage or harm. A medical malpractice lawsuit can provide a way for injury victims to recover financial compensation from the negligent doctor. 

If you or a loved one were injured by a medical misdiagnosis, contact our experienced medical malpractice law firm for a free consultation. Contact our office today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

Common Diagnostic Errors for Doctors

Researchers with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore evaluated data from diagnostic error records and identified 15 conditions in three areas that account for almost half of all serious, misdiagnosis-related injuries. Termed the “Big Three,” diagnostic errors leading to death or serious, permanent disability included: 

  • Misdiagnosed cancer (37.8%)
  • Vascular events (22.8%)
  • Infections (13.5%)

These types of diagnostic errors are broader categories that can include a number of serious medical conditions and diseases. The top conditions in each of the three categories include: 

  • Stroke
  • Sepsis
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart attack
  • Venous thromboembolism
  • Aortic aneurysm and dissection
  • Arterial thromboembolism
  • Meningitis and encephalitis
  • Spinal infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Endocarditis
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer

Examples of the Big Three Misdiagnosis Errors

It may be difficult to imagine how an experienced doctor in a well-respected hospital could make such a terrible error. Here, we can give some examples of what might happen in a medical situation that could lead to a misdiagnosis error, even with the best of doctors. We can use the so-called “Big 3” to help frame the issues. 

Cancer Misdiagnosis in Chicago

Any diagnosis generally begins with a visit to the doctor. For example, a 48-year-old woman goes to her family doctor for a complaint about infection and inflammation in the armpit. She tells the doctor that she occasionally performs a self-breast exam but has never noticed a lump in the breast tissue. The patient gets a regular mammogram, which has always been negative. The doctor is treated with antibiotics, which appear to improve the infection and inflammation. 

A year later, the patient goes to the doctor for the same type of inflammation and infection in the armpit, which the doctor believes may be caused by obstruction of the hair follicles in certain sweat glands. The doctor again treats the patient with antibiotics. When the patient returns for a follow-up, the doctor notices some nodes in the armpit and breast tissue. The nodes continue over follow-up visits, and the doctor then requests another mammogram and biopsy. The patient was diagnosed with breast cancer and aggressive treatment failed, and the patient died. 

What Could Have Caused the Misdiagnosis?

In this case, the patient’s complaints about the irritation, infection, and inflammation may have masked other symptoms and signs that could have pointed to possible cancer. Poor imaging studies may have failed to provide a clear image of the breast tissue. Failure of the doctor to properly record their findings or review all imaging and diagnostic records could have also led to confusion. If the doctor was not very responsive to the patient’s complaints, this could have caused the patient to hold back on their concerns about changes in their body. Altogether, if the doctor had not followed the proper standard of care, it may have caused a misdiagnosis in the patient, leading to delayed treatment and increased risk of serious injury or death. 

This Illinois example is not the only type of cancer misdiagnosis someone can experience. Some of the most commonly misdiagnosed cancers include breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer. If you have any doubt about your diagnosis, try and get a second opinion. Unfortunately, the insurance company may try to make you jump through hoops to get a second opinion or charge you more for getting another review of your medical diagnosis.

Undiagnosed Heart Attack in Baltimore

The vascular system, or circulatory system, involves the parts of the body that carry blood and lymph throughout the body. Oxygen is necessary for cells and organs to work properly, including the lungs oxygenating the blood and heart pumping blood throughout the body. When there are problems in the circulatory system, it can cause serious harm. If left undiagnosed or untreated, vascular problems can cause death. 

In this example, a 52-year-old woman in good health begins experiencing fullness in the upper abdomen after Thanksgiving dinner. After experiencing shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue, the patient goes to the ER. The doctor asks the patient if she is experiencing pain in the chest or intense pressure and the woman says no. The doctor takes some vitals, which are slightly abnormal but could be explained by stress and anxiety. The doctor tells the patient to come back if things get worse and to follow up with her regular doctor. The woman dies from a heart attack on the way home from the hospital. 

What Could Have Caused the Misdiagnosis?

The signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women can be different than in men. Many women never experience the “tell-tale” signs of chest pain and heavy chest pressure. Signs of a heart attack can be more subtle, and can be confused with the flu, acid reflux, or anxiety. If a doctor downplays the patient’s symptoms, they may be less willing to speak up. Statistics also show that women of color may receive lower rates of treatment for heart health care. If a doctor fails to provide the proper level of care, it can lead to a worse outcome, including death. 

A patient who suffers after an undiagnosed heart attack in Maryland has experienced a vascular misdiagnosis. A stroke is another commonly misdiagnosed vascular event, where a blood clot moves to the brain, cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain which can begin to cause damage in a very short time. Time is of the essence in many vascular events and any delay in diagnosis could increase the risk of permanent injury or death for the patient. 

Septic Infection in Philadelphia

Meningitis, encephalitis, endocarditis, and spinal infection are all types of infections that can cause serious, and even fatal, damage. Signs of many types of infection can be confused with other types of conditions. If a patient presents with multiple signs and symptoms, the doctor may attribute some symptoms to other common conditions. For example, a doctor may assume that a patient’s gasping breath is because of their COPD or obesity instead or because the patient is suffering a serious septic infection

Infections may not seem like a serious type of injury when they can be treated with antibiotics or other types of treatment. However, Pennsylvania patients with a compromised immune system, or individuals who have infections go untreated can face a grim diagnosis. After an infection has spread or caused too much damage, it may require surgery, amputation, or removal of tissue to stop further damage caused by the infection. 

Why Are Conditions Misdiagnosed?

Diseases and medical conditions can be misdiagnosed for many reasons. Much of the modern American health care system is focused on maximizing profits for the insurance companies and the healthcare industry. This prioritizes treating as many patients, as cheaply as possible, in as short a time as possible. Not surprisingly, this extreme cost-cutting can also cut into patient care, leading to worse outcomes for patients. Some common reasons for misdiagnosis include: 

  • Overwhelmed emergency rooms where doctors don’t have enough time to do a full evaluation and triage
  • Understaffed facilities, where patients are not seen or evaluated on a regular basis 
  • Hand-off procedures that have communication problems because doctors are overworked 
  • Documentation errors when doctors are quickly moving between patients and duties
  • Failure to properly follow-up with patients
  • Lack of diagnostic testing, blood tests, culture tests, and imaging 
  • Making incorrect assumptions based on patient’s appearance 
  • Failure to properly listen to the patient’s complaints, concerns, and medical history

Unfortunately, many misdiagnosed conditions are never identified. Patients who are victims of negligent misdiagnosis often fail to take action to notify the doctor, hospital, or medical community about how they were treated. Even if a patient complains to the doctor or hospital, there may be no action taken or the negligent doctor may even deny that there was a misdiagnosis. 

Bias and Systemic Healthcare Problems That Increase Misdiagnostic Errors 

A study in the journal Clinical Medicine looked at ways to improve diagnostic processes to reduce the problem of misdiagnosis. According to the study, “diagnostic error underlies about 10% of adverse events occurring in hospital practice.” 

Researchers have identified a number of biases that can lead to patient mismanagement. These biases can make doctors treat patients differently, even if they are presenting with the same symptoms and complaints. Some of the identified cognitive biases included: 

  • Confirmation bias: where the doctor tries to confirm their initial thoughts instead of considering other, or even more likely causes.
  • Premature closure: where the doctor stops looking at other possibilities once diagnostic test results support the initial assessment. 
  • Vertical line failure: where the doctor has seen a common pattern and classifies the patient with an automatic conclusion. 
  • Omission bias: where the doctor does not want to push a difficult or unresponsive patient, to comfort the patient instead of asking hard questions. 
  •  Value bias: where the doctor minimizes serious possibilities when simpler alternatives could apply. 

Another common problem involves an initial misdiagnosis that later goes through additional reviews, without other doctors or clinicians challenging unlikely or incorrect findings. Many doctors simply agree with what the senior medical officials determine. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers may fail to speak up to slow down “diagnostic momentum,” where the team is more invested the further they go down the wrong road. Many doctors can also be very resistant to the possibility that they made a mistake. 

Improve Care Through Medical Malpractice Claims 

One of the only ways to take action after a medical misdiagnosis is to file a medical malpractice claim. A medical malpractice claim brings attention to the problem and makes the doctor, hospital, and insurance companies sit up and take notice. One reason a medical malpractice claim is so effective is because it puts a financial cost on a doctor’s mistakes. If the doctor or hospital knows they will have to pay for the victim’s damages, they may be more likely to take action to correct the problem so it won’t happen again. 

Getting Help After a Misdiagnosis

Many patients do not trust their doctors after a misdiagnosis. However, it is important that you continue to receive care and treatment for any conditions that can impact your health. Just because one doctor made a mistake does not mean you should avoid doctors and hospitals completely. Unfortunately, it may take time for you to be able to put your faith and trust in the hands of a doctor after a dangerous misdiagnosis. 

For legal help after a misdiagnosis, an experienced medical malpractice attorney may provide the assistance you need. A medical malpractice lawsuit is a civil claim to help you recover compensation for your losses. If the doctor or hospital are found to have been responsible for your injuries, a jury may award damages for your loss. Alternatively, the doctor’s insurance company may make an offer to settle the claim without having to go to court. 

The damages award in a malpractice claim can be significant. Damages include both economic and non-economic losses related to the accident. Damages can include medical bills, lost wages, loss of future income, continuing medical care, and pain and suffering. Talk to your medical malpractice attorney about how much you can receive in a medical malpractice settlement.   

At Gilman & Bedigian, our experienced trial lawyers have helped our clients and their loved ones recover millions of dollars in compensation after medical misdiagnosis injuries. We have years of experience serving injury victims and their families. Contact us online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation.

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