A recent decision by a Massachusetts jury highlights the severe damage that a delayed diagnosis can cause medical malpractice victims, as well as demonstrating how radiologists can play a crucial role in timely diagnosis.
A delayed diagnosis occurs when a medical professional either makes an incorrect diagnosis or fails to diagnose the correct medical issue and then later makes an accurate diagnosis. Sometimes this can include treating a patient for an incorrect diagnosis (something that has the potential to worsen the patient's condition).
A radiologist is a doctor who specializes in obtaining and assessing medical images to diagnose health conditions. Such images include x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds. Radiologists have advanced medical training and perform a variety of non-interventional and interventional treatments.
In the case of a young girl treated at Boston-area Newton-Wellesley Hospital, a radiologist failed to diagnose myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. The girl's parents first brought her to the hospital when she was 18 months old and experiencing vomiting and dehydration. A chest x-ray was performed, at which time the radiologist assigned to the case determined that "bronchiolitis v atypical pneumonia was likely present". The radiologist failed to react to the girl's enlarged heart.
According to the attorney representing the parents of the patient, if her enlarged heart had been identified as reported at the time of the x-ray, she would have undergone an echocardiogram, her myocarditis would have been discovered and treated."
What did happen was that the girl suffered heart failure and cardiac arrest. This cardiac arrest lead to permanent neurological injuries that leave the 11-year-old girl "functioning in some ways as a 4-year-old in terms of development."
Attorneys representing the radiologist argued that no malpractice occurred because the physician adhered to the standard of care. In medical malpractice cases, the standard of care is often a critical factor. Essentially, the finder of fact is tasked with determining what a similarly qualified and reasonable medical professional would do under the same circumstances.
A standard of care for any particular medical issue is a fluid one; it will evolve over time as research and treatment methods similarly evolve. Additionally, it is contingent upon a determination of "similar circumstances"- that is, a medic providing treatment to a soldier on the battlefield would not be held to the same standard as a surgeon performing an operation in a top US hospital.
Ultimately, the jury in this case disagreed with the radiologist's legal team. They found that he was, in fact, negligent in his care and treatment of the victim and that he was “a substantial contributing factor in causing injury” to her. Her family was awarded $11.5 million as compensation.