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Delays In Cancer Diagnosis Continue To Create Preventable Fatalities And Medical Malpractice Suits

A recent study by Johns Hopkins revealed that medical errors are attributed to approximately 250,000 annual fatalities among patients. Often these deaths are the result of a delay in the diagnosis of some form of cancer. A study from Harvard involving patients admitted to the hospital showed that 17% of the errors that occur in this setting involve diagnosis. Autopsy reports also suggest that nearly 10% of the deceased have a condition that was undetected while they were alive.

Two Recent Examples

Diane C., a 50-year-old, underwent a colonoscopy and her doctor determined that she had a polyp. She was told that the polyp was successfully removed and she expressed relief. The doctor did send a sample of the polyp to a pathologist for examination. The pathologist found that the polyp was cancerous and that some cancer still remained in her colon. This information was mistakenly not received by Diane or her doctor for several years while cancer spread significantly to a point where treatment was futile.

Lisa B. visited her doctor with concerns about a mole that had developed. She saw his nurse practitioner who took a sample and sent it to a pathologist. The pathologist detected cancer; however, this information was not communicated to her or her doctor. Six months later she returned to the doctor because the mole continued to worsen. Her cancer had progressed significantly by this time and she was forced to promptly begin chemotherapy and endure multiple surgeries, which could have been avoided.

Importance of Early Detection

Diagnosing cancer early on is critical to successfully treating it. Stage-one cancer is generally considered to be curable. Once cancer spreads to stage-four, life expectancy is less than five years. Roughly 93% of those diagnosed with bowel cancer in the first phase live for more than five years; however, only 7% of those where cancer has developed to an advanced level survive for five years. Based on these types of data, it is not surprising that many of these diagnostic errors lead to cases of medical malpractice.

Most Commonly Diagnosed Forms of Cancer Each Year in the U.S.

Breast Cancer

Lung Cancer

Prostate Cancer

Colon / Rectal Cancer





Communications Failures

In general, medical mistakes are the third leading cause of fatalities. This is the case despite widespread emphasis within the health care community on ensuring that proper documentation is made. Often there are simply failures in communication between providers who are treating the same patient. Interoperability between the many systems of electronic health records is one key. Some of the leading areas of medicine where diagnostic errors occur include “primary care, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and surgery.”

Medical providers and institutions are developing systems to increase reliability. The majority of the errors occur when the patient is moved from one phase to the next. In both of the instances involving cancer we discussed, the patients had clearly acted properly in seeking treatment. Cancer is clearly among the conditions that must be diagnosed in a timely manner.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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