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Failure to Diagnose in a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

A proper diagnosis is one of the most important parts of getting health care treatment. The diagnosis can be the basis for treatment options and prognosis. A diagnosis is also a way to quickly convey important medical information to other members of your healthcare team. Without a correct diagnosis, treatment options may be delayed or limited and your doctor may have to spend more time doing tests, getting consults, and trying to evaluate your medical condition. 

Failure to diagnose is a serious problem in medical care. There may be a lot of reasons why a patient is not diagnosed but when the patient seeks care from medical professionals, is evaluated, and is not diagnosed despite signs and indications of health concerns, it can be dangerous. In many cases, a patient is sent home without a diagnosis or treatment plan, only to return to the emergency department (ED) the next day in a worsening condition.

If your doctor failed to diagnose a serious condition that later caused serious injury or harm, you may be a victim of medical malpractice. A medical malpractice lawsuit may allow you to make sure the negligent doctor is held accountable and get compensation for your losses. If you have questions about failure to diagnose injuries, contact a law firm with a record of success in medical malpractice cases.

Diagnosing a Medical Condition

Many people turn to the internet when they start to have signs or symptoms of an illness or not feeling well. Internet search results can be less than helpful when some of the common search results for “stomach pain” may include constipation, food poisoning, stomach flu, or appendicitis. Some of these conditions may be minor and will relieve themselves within a day or two. Some of these conditions can cause serious infection, bleeding, or even death. 

A Google search for signs and symptoms of an injury can give you an overview of possible treatment options and help you understand when it is time to see a doctor. However, an internet search cannot diagnose your medical condition. Even well-meaning friends or family who had “just the same thing happen” to them are not able to diagnose you. In general, the only ones who can make a medical diagnosis are licensed physicians.  

Making a diagnosis is part of the duties and responsibilities of being a licensed doctor. Doctors have to undergo years of education, training, and clinical experience to be able to understand how the body works, signs and symptoms of various medical conditions and treatment options. Doctors also have to understand when they do not have an answer, they need to continue narrowing down their differential diagnosis to arrive at the correct diagnosis, or seek a consultation or specialist evaluation. 

Failure to Diagnose and Other Diagnostic Errors

The medical diagnosis is the starting point for many health care treatments. Unfortunately, diagnostic errors are not uncommon. Diagnostic mistakes can also be more costly and harmful than treatment errors. According to a report from Johns Hopkins Medicine, “researchers estimate the number of patients suffering misdiagnosis-related, potentially preventable, significant permanent injury or death annually in the United States ranges from 80,000 to 160,000.”

A diagnostic error is harmful to patients because the failure delays treatment or failure to treat the actual medical condition can allow the condition to get worse. Misdiagnosis can also result in harm to the patient by receiving unnecessary or invasive treatment that does nothing to improve their overall condition. Diagnostic errors include a variety of medical mistakes, including: 

Medicine is not always an exact science. A patient may present with atypical symptoms. Other patients with serious conditions may have no symptoms at all. Failure to diagnose a medical condition that no doctor could have identified is not necessarily a medical malpractice case. However, if the doctor deviated from the standard of care and failed to diagnose a medical condition, which was the cause of an injury, then the doctor may be liable for medical malpractice. 

The difference here is that when the doctor acts in a way that other doctors would in a similar situation, they are departing from the medical standards of the practice, based on education, training, and community of practice. When a doctor does something that other doctors would not have reasonably done, and it results in harm, that doctor should be held responsible for their actions. 

Example of Failure to Diagnose Error

For example, a patient comes in with various complaints and the doctor tells the patient to get a blood draw for a standard panel of diagnostic tests. The blood tests show abnormal levels of white blood cells and platelet counts. However, the doctor just skims the blood test, focusing instead on the patient’s cholesterol level, which is a little high. The doctor does not pay attention to the white blood cell or platelet counts and tells the patient to avoid fatty foods and get more exercise, sending the patient home. 

In this example, a reasonable doctor would likely have noticed the patient’s white blood cell counts and platelet counts that were abnormal, indicating something other than just high cholesterol. A reasonable doctor would have likely done more tests, asked more probing questions, or even referred the patient to another doctor. Just sending the patient home without follow-up or further testing may result in a failure to diagnose a more serious condition. 

In the same example, if the patient continued to feel worse and went to the ER a few days later, another doctor may have correctly diagnosed their condition, resulting in a delayed diagnosis and likely delayed treatment. Delayed treatment for serious conditions can result in a worse outcome or even limit treatment options, causing unnecessary injury and harm.  

Common Medical Conditions That Are Not Diagnosed

There are many types of medical conditions that can be overlooked by negligent doctors. However, some types of diseases and conditions can be much more dangerous if they are not identified as soon as possible. This includes fast-acting diseases and injuries like certain types of cancer, infection, or brain injuries. 

According to research done at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, researchers looked at data from 28 published studies representing 91,755 patients for the most serious harms that are attributed to a small number of conditions. The “Big 3” diagnostic errors that can lead to death or serious, permanent disability include: 

  1. Misdiagnosed cancer (37.8%)
  2. Vascular events (22.8%)
  3. Infections (13.5%)

Of these big three conditions, there were 15 conditions that account for almost half of all serious, misdiagnosis-related harms. Knowing that there are 15 primary conditions that makeup about half of all diagnosis-error related injuries and deaths should help put doctors on notice that when they encounter signs, symptoms, medical histories, and diagnostic indicators that could point to one of these conditions, they should make sure to take a closer look. Unfortunately, diagnostic errors remain all too common in these areas: 

  1. Lung cancer
  2. Breast cancer
  3. Colorectal cancer
  4. Prostate cancer
  5. Skin cancer
  6. Sepsis
  7. Meningitis and encephalitis
  8. Spinal infection
  9. Pneumonia
  10. Endocarditis
  11. Stroke
  12. Heart attack
  13. Venous thromboembolism
  14. Aortic aneurysm and dissection
  15. Arterial thromboembolism

Failure to Diagnose Cancer

Failure to diagnose cancer is devastating and many people have someone in their lives that was diagnosed with cancer after the disease had already progressed to the point where the prognosis was not good. Some people can battle back through with aggressive interventions and win the fight. Others, no matter how hard they fight, will succumb to the disease. A timely cancer diagnosis can go a long way to reducing the risks of long-term harm and improving the chances of recovery. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells divide without control and can spread to nearby tissues. There are several types of cancer, including carcinoma, sarcoma, leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and central nervous system cancers. Cancer cells may form lumps of tissues, or tumors. Cancerous tumors may metastasis, or travel to other parts of the body. 

Cancer can be hereditary and it can also be based on several risk factors. It is important to talk to your doctor about any family history of cancer, which can be an indicator of a greater risk of cancer. Other common risk factors for developing cancer include: 

  • Overweight or obesity
  • Tobacco use
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Alcohol use
  • Environmental exposure to pollution and chemicals
  • Sun exposure
  • Radiation exposure
  • Diet and physical activity

There are many ways a doctor can diagnose cancer of various types. Cancer might start with the patient’s complaints of pain, a lump, unexpected bleeding, or other symptoms. However, cancer is often identified without any serious complaints from the patient. A differential diagnosis that leads to cancer can include a variety of indicators. Cancer can be diagnosed based on: 

  • Medical history
  • Family history
  • Physical exam
  • Lab tests
  • Imaging tests
  • Biopsy
  • Other lab tests or procedures

Failure to Diagnose Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is among the most common types of cancer that lead to death. Lung cancer is responsible for about a quarter of all cancer-related deaths. Lung cancer can be associated with smoking but it can also develop in non-smokers. Symptoms of lung cancer often involve problems in the lungs, like coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing up blood. Diagnosing lung cancer can involve eliminating other possible conditions, as well as taking x-rays and other imaging scans. 

Lung cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer and how far the cancer has spread or metastasized. Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. If the cancer is diagnosed too late, the prognosis may be very poor and there is a high chance that cancer will be fatal. 

Failure to Diagnose Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is another common cancer in women but can also involve men. Breast cancer is often slow-growing. This means that detecting breast cancer early can give the patient a much better prognosis, along with more treatment options. Symptoms may include a lump in the breast, swelling, irritation, and pain in the breast or nipple area. Detecting possible breast cancer often involves screening with mammograms or ultrasounds. 

Treatment options for breast cancer depend on the type of cancer, spread of cancer, and location of cancerous tumors. Treatment includes surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. Failure to diagnose breast cancer can allow the cancer to spread, making it more difficult to target and treat. If a delayed diagnosis comes too late, the outcome for a late diagnosis can be fatal. 

Failure to Diagnose Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths for both men and women. However, if the cancer is diagnosed early, the survival rate is higher than 90%. Unfortunately, if a doctor fails to diagnose colorectal cancer because of negligence, miscommunication, or other errors, it can develop to the point where the survival rate drops. Symptoms of colorectal cancer include constipation, diarrhea, bowel problems, and blood in the stool. Common screening tests include a colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, and digital exam. 

Failure to Diagnose Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. but is generally not as deadly as other types of cancer. Almost 20% of Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. Most of the skin cancer-related deaths are related to melanoma. Detecting melanoma often involves a physical exam of the skin, looking for the ABCDE’s of possible melanoma, which include: 

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color is not the same all over
  • Diameter is larger than a pencil eraser
  • Evolving in size, shape, or color 

Treatment options depend on the type of cancer, location, and stage of cancer. Some treatment options include surgical removal of growths, radiation, or chemotherapy. If cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it can be more difficult to treat and may have a lower chance of recovery. 

Finding Out About a Failed Diagnosis in a Loved One  

If a loved one passed away from a serious illness, including cancer, stroke, or infection, you may suspect that there was a medical failure somewhere along the way that could have prevented their untimely death. If you suspect a doctor made a mistake and failed to diagnose a serious illness or disease at an earlier stage, it may have increased the risk of injury or harm. Talk to an experienced medical injury attorney as soon as possible for answers. 

An experienced medical malpractice lawyer at Gilman & Bedigian can evaluate your medical claim and help you determine whether or not there is a claim. Talk to experienced trial attorneys who can review your case, get an expert’s review, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim after a medical malpractice injury. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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