People generally trust doctors. When a doctor says that there is something wrong, most people accept what they hear and seek further medical attention to treat the malady that the doctor has told them they have.
Doctors, however, are human. They make mistakes just like the rest of us. However, when they make a mistake and miss a diagnosis or misinterpret your symptoms for a medical condition that you do not have, it can be very costly to your health. Even when they end up getting the diagnosis correct, if that diagnosis gets delayed, you can still suffer from not getting immediate treatment. This is especially true when the diagnosis is a serious medical condition that needs prompt action, like cancer.
In these cases, you will have suffered through no fault of your own, which is unfair and unjust. You deserve to be compensated for your losses. This is where hiring an attorney and filing a medical malpractice claim against the doctor who misdiagnosed you and caused you to miss important medical treatment can help you recover.
The Three Types of Diagnostic Errors
There are a variety of ways for diagnostic errors to happen, in the medical field:
- You can be diagnosed with the wrong medical condition, an incorrect diagnosis,
- You can be told you are fine even though you actually have a health problem, amounting to a failed diagnosis, and
- You can be diagnosed with one condition and receive treatment for it, only for the doctor to then realize that they were wrong and re-diagnose you with what you actually suffer from. This is a delayed diagnosis.
In a way, a delayed diagnosis begins as either an incorrect diagnosis – where the doctor says you have one medical condition, when you are actually suffering from another one – or a failed diagnosis – where the doctor says you are fine, when you are actually not. As time progresses, however, it becomes clear that this first decision by the doctor concerning your health was incorrect. When your medical situation is revisited, the doctor changes the diagnosis. This new decision about your health is the delayed diagnosis.
How a delayed diagnosis happens becomes clearer, once you understand how doctors typically diagnose patients.
How Doctors Diagnose Patients
Broadly speaking, there are three steps that doctors take when they diagnose a patient's medical problems:
- They gather the relevant facts and data about the patient, including their medical history,
- They apply what they have learned to their medical knowledge and what is known in the medical community, and then
- Make a diagnosis based on how the symptoms relate to the field of medical knowledge, or a differential diagnosis, if there are several possible medical conditions that could be wrong, and then returning to step one to determine which possibility it is.
The first step in this process is the source of many diagnostic errors that need to be corrected with a delayed diagnosis. Fact-finding in the medical context is a time-intensive process. Doctors need to determine which facts they need in order to make a correct diagnosis and then order the appropriate test that will give them the data that they need. However, this information can make it clear that they need other data, as well, leading to another test. Some of the more complex diagnoses take up to a dozen medical tests, each of which is followed by extensive analysis by all of the doctors involved.
However, many delayed diagnoses come from mistakes made in the second part of the process, especially when the diagnosis is in a field that has developed quickly in the past few years, like cancer research. With new techniques and discoveries happening on a nearly weekly basis, doctors have a hard time keeping up with the most recent developments that could help you in your path to recovery.
If a doctor makes a mistake during either of the first two steps of the diagnostic schedule, it can result in an improper diagnosis that then needs to be corrected. Even if the physician realizes that he or she cannot make a diagnosis based on the facts given, and makes a differential diagnosis, instead, it can still result in a delayed diagnosis. When a doctor makes a differential diagnosis, they will typically have narrowed your medical condition down to one of several possibilities. Treatment typically then begins to either trigger symptoms that will show the doctors what is the true diagnosis, or will aim to help you fight against the worst possible outcome.
While differential diagnoses are, themselves, an example of a delayed diagnosis because the doctor failed to make the correct medical decision at the start of the process, they rarely amount to an instance of medical malpractice. Differential diagnoses are often the best that a doctor can do, given the tricky circumstances. However, they can turn into a malpractice claim for a delayed diagnosis if the doctor fails to monitor your progress and this results in you not getting the treatment that you need to make a recovery.
The Hidden Dangers of a Delayed Diagnosis
Out of the three possible diagnostic errors, suffering from a delayed diagnosis seems like it is the least catastrophic. At least the doctor realized his or her mistake and corrected it, setting you onto the correct path of recovery in the end. Other diagnostic errors are only discovered after it is too late, during an autopsy.
Just because the misdiagnosis is found, though, does not mean that no damage has been done. In fact, in many cases, the mistaken diagnosis is only discovered after it is too late to correct the problem: The actual medical condition has grown worse and worse and has become impossible to treat. In other cases, the delay in correctly diagnosing your medical problem has made treating it far more expensive, more painful, and less likely to succeed.
Additionally, a delayed diagnosis also comes with an obvious repercussion for those who suffer from them: They get worse and unhealthier in the time between the original diagnosis and the correct one. This can impact your personal and professional life, and can even make life more difficult for your family, as well.
Medical Conditions Especially Prone to a Delayed Diagnosis
There are some medical conditions that are especially prone to a delayed diagnosis because they showcase symptoms that could be confused for numerous other medical conditions, or because their symptoms are difficult for the patient to notice or for the doctor to detect.
Out of all of the medical conditions that are susceptible to a delayed diagnosis, the most important and the most severe is cancer.
Delayed Diagnosis for Cancer Patients in Philadelphia
Cancer is increasingly becoming a common medical problem. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the year 2016 saw and estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer being diagnosed in the United States, as well as 595,690 people dying from the disease. This means, for every 100,000 people in the U.S., there were 454.8 new cases of cancer, and 171.2 deaths.
Perhaps most disturbingly, though, is the statistic that estimates that 39.6% of people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life. Many of these diagnoses will be for one of the most common cancers which, according to the NCI, include:
- Breast cancer,
- Lung cancer,
- Bronchus cancer,
- Prostate cancer,
- Rectum or colon cancer,
- Bladder cancer,
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma,
- Thyroid cancer,
- Kidney cancer,
- Renal pelvis cancer,
- Pancreatic cancer, and
- Endometrial cancer.
Many of these cancers develop and spread rapidly, requiring immediate treatment before they get too serious. The prognosis for people who are correctly diagnosed with cancer quickly is far better than for those who are not. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate of women who have been diagnosed with stage II breast cancer – a quick diagnosis when the cancer is still in its early development – is 93%. For those who are first diagnosed when the cancer has developed to stage IV, though, the 5-year survival rate drops precipitously, down to only 22%.
These disturbing statistics show just how important it is to get a quick and accurate diagnosis from your doctor.
How a Delayed Diagnosis Can Amount to Medical Malpractice in Philadelphia
Unfortunately, even if you were a patient who waited and suffered through months or maybe even years of not knowing what was wrong with you, a delayed diagnosis is not automatically grounds for a medical malpractice claim. The medical field is far from perfect, and there is still a lot of uncertainty in how to treat medical conditions, or even in how to detect them, in the first place.
However, if your diagnosis was delayed and your health suffered as a result, there may still be legal options to get the compensation that you need and deserve from the person or the people who caused your injuries. In Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania, three things have to be present, in order for you to be successful in a medical malpractice claim because of a delayed diagnosis:
- You need to have a physician-patient relationship with the doctor whose diagnosis was delayed,
- The delayed diagnosis must have been the result of that doctor's negligence, and
- You needed to have suffered harm, as a result of the delayed diagnosis.
The Physician-Patient Relationship in Philadelphia
No doctor should have to pay a medical malpractice settlement to someone who they have never seen before and did not give medical advice to. This is why patients need to show that there was a physician-patient relationship before they can win a medical malpractice claim in Philadlephia.
A physician-patient relationship exists, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), when “a physician serves a patient's medical needs.” This relationship, moreover, is often the result of a mutual agreement between the patient and the doctor, though there are exceptions to this rule, such as when you receive emergency treatment before you can consent to a particular doctor's care, or when you are cared for by a different doctor, at the request of your regular physician.
The Negligence Requirement
Once there has been a physician-patient relationship, the doctor owes you an obligation to provide medical care that is of a reasonable standard of quality for the circumstances. If they fail to uphold this responsibility, and provide medical care that is substandard, their poor conduct can amount to negligence.
Importantly, though, the standard of care depends on the situation. A doctor who sees you multiple times over the course of several years without noticing that you have tell-tale signs of cancer can be negligent, while one who misses the same signs of cancer while you are in the emergency room for a broken arm might not be.
Harm to the Patient
Finally, in order to be able to recover compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit, you will need to have suffered harm as a result of the delayed diagnosis. While this is the case in many, if not most, of the circumstances, there are exceptions where the doctor's negligent diagnosis resulted in a delay that ended up not causing any harm, at all. For example, if the medical condition that you are suffering from is incurable and the delay in diagnosing it did not cause you to miss any treatments that could have eased the pain and suffering that come from the disease, then you would not have been harmed.
However, in nearly all cases, this is not the case. A delayed diagnosis puts off the treatment that you need, and allows the underlying symptoms to get even worse. Even if the delay did not worsen your prognosis, it can still have reduced the time you have left, or led to a needless increase in the pain and suffering you have been through. You deserve to be compensated for this terrible experience, and a medical malpractice suit can be the way to make this happen.
Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian
If you or someone you love has suffered from a delayed diagnosis, contact the Philadelphia medical malpractice attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian online.