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How Common Is a False Diagnosis?

When you are suffering from unfamiliar symptoms, you may do a quick search on the internet and find that you could have anything from the flu to a fatal and rare tropical disease. Searching the internet can be helpful for finding a nearby restaurant or checking the hours of the grocery store but it may not be the best way to make a medical diagnosis. 

Leave it up to your doctor to make a diagnosis if you have pain, or discomfort, or want to address unfamiliar symptoms. If you are unclear about what your doctor is saying or think they are missing something, ask questions. We all like to have faith in our doctors and the medical system but history has shown that doctors make mistakes too. 

If a doctor made the wrong diagnosis and you continued to suffer or your injuries were made worse because of the delays, you may have a claim for medical malpractice. A medical malpractice lawsuit can help you get financial compensation for your injuries. If you are not sure whether you have a malpractice claim or how much you can get for your injuries, talk to a medical malpractice law firm. Contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer for legal advice about your case.

What Is a False Diagnosis?

A false diagnosis is the wrong diagnosis for the actual medical condition or conditions involved. This can include a misdiagnosis (diagnosing the wrong condition), or failure to diagnose (finding the patient did not have anything major wrong when there were signs of a serious medical condition).

A false diagnosis can involve something minor, like failing to identify the common cold, or something more serious, like failing to detect breast cancer. When a false diagnosis is minor, there may be no real long-term injuries. However, a serious false diagnosis could lead to permanent injury, disability, hospitalization, or death. 

According to findings by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, of the most common conditions that involved misdiagnosed injuries, the “Big Three” diagnostic errors that involved death or serious injury were categorized as:  

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

But just how common are these? A study published in BMJ found that the average rate of outpatient diagnostic errors was over 5%, or approximately 12 million adults in the U.S. every year. About half of those diagnosis errors (6 million people a year) are potentially harmful.

If you go to your doctor or even do a video consultation, you may be reassured to hear your doctor say they think it is a common condition and can be cleared up with some medication and rest. However, just in case, they want you to come in for some tests. 

However, just because you have a medical diagnosis does not mean all your problems are solved. A medical diagnosis is often a “best guess” given the available information. An initial diagnosis can mean the doctor is working with very little information. In fact, your doctor’s diagnosis could be totally wrong. 

Unfortunately, many patients take the diagnosis as a fact and fail to follow up even if the treatment didn’t work or symptoms change. If you have any change for the worse, the medication didn’t work, or you just feel like something’s wrong, get medical attention. You may have to be your own health advocate to get the care you need. 

How Does a Doctor Make a Diagnosis?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the diagnostic process starts when a patient experiences a health problem and engages with the health care system. Information is gathered and integrated with the health system, including:

  • Clinical history
  • Current concern
  • Past medical history
  • Family history
  • Social history 
  • Current medications
  • Dietary supplements

The clinical history and interview require effective communication between the healthcare provider and the patient, including using active listening skills and tailoring communication to the patient’s needs. The evaluation continues, with:

  • Physical exam
  • Diagnostic testing
  • Imaging
  • Lab tests
  • Anatomic pathology

The doctor can make a working diagnosis to compare the information gathered, with continuous information gathering to change the hypothesis or update probabilities. A working diagnosis can be a group of potential answers (differential diagnosis) or a single diagnosis, which should be communicated to the patient. If the doctor is not satisfied that enough information has been obtained, they can continue to seek more information to narrow the diagnosis.

Patients may be surprised to find that doctors may not have diagnostic certainty before determining a treatment plan. In some cases, the treatment plan can further reduce diagnostic uncertainty by trying out the proper treatment for one of the differential diagnostic possibilities. 

A doctor may refer the patient to another provider for a second opinion or refer the patient to a specialist to confirm or reject the working diagnosis or gather additional diagnostic information.

What Are the Consequences of a False Diagnosis?

The consequences of a false diagnosis may be obvious but it can be worse than you think. Generally, the consequences of the wrong diagnosis could include:

  • Failure to treat the correct condition (treating a minor condition and failing to treat the underlying condition)
  • Unnecessary treatment of the wrong condition (unnecessary treatment with side effects and complications)

Failure to Treat Patient’s Condition 

Failure to treat the correct condition can be like a delayed diagnosis. The patient is sent away with a treatment plan that they think will work. This gives the patient confidence that the doctor’s treatment plan is going to work and the patient stops paying attention to the signs and symptoms that brought them to the doctor in the first place. 

For example, in the medical journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorder, a survey of patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) were misdiagnosed, with the most common alternative diagnosis being migraines. 

If a patient goes to the doctor with complaints of severe headaches; sensitivity to light, sounds and smells; nausea and vomiting; fainting; and blurred vision, a doctor may diagnose the patient with migraines. The doctor may come up with a treatment plan that includes over-the-counter medicine, pain relievers, anti-nausea drugs, antidepressants, blood pressure medication, or a variety of other prescription medications that may not help with MS symptoms. 

The patient may continue to suffer for months or longer, thinking the symptoms are getting slightly better with a placebo effect or maybe they’re not getting worse. In the meantime, the patient may progressively get worse, with more persistent and steady flare-ups. 

Finally, after a follow-up with another doctor, the new doctor may have been shocked that the patient was misdiagnosed with migraines when there was enough information to include MS in a differential diagnosis at the time of the original diagnosis. 

The patient may have been eligible for experimental clinical medications to treat MS at the early stages, to reduce symptoms, or delay progression. Because of the false diagnosis, the patient may have suffered unnecessarily for years and have fewer treatment options than they would have because of the misdiagnosis.

Unnecessary Treatment

Unnecessary treatment sounds benign, like how could it hurt if you got a little extra medicine? Unfortunately, that “little extra medicine” could be something like unnecessary surgery, removal of an organ, chemotherapy, amputation, or taking medication with a high risk of serious adverse events. 

To use as an example of the above scenario with multiple sclerosis, a patient comes to the doctor complaining of fatigue, mental confusion, numbness, and tingling in the hands and feet. Another disease that is more likely to be misdiagnosed as MS is Vitamin B12 deficiency or copper deficiency. B12 or copper deficiency could be treated simply with supplements. However, if a patient with a B12 deficiency is given an MS diagnosis, they could receive a very different treatment. 

There are several different treatment options for MS, with varying effectiveness. A patient may even be recommended for experimental or clinical trials, where the side effects and adverse effects are unknown. The patient may even request some of these treatments, based on the doctor’s diagnosis, even if they are not covered by their insurance, racking up tens of thousands in medical bills. 

Treatment with interferons can cause flu-like symptoms and increase the risk of infection because they lower white-blood-cell counts. Side effects and adverse effects of other MS medications may include:

  • Hair loss
  • Rashes
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Weakened immune system
  • Back pain
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Brain infection
  • Respiratory problems
  • Liver problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Birth defects
  • Heart damage
  • Leukemia

A patient who is misdiagnosed with MS may risk any or all of those side effects based on the treatment plan, all of which could have been avoided if the patient was diagnosed with the correct condition. 

Different Doctors and Different Diagnosis

If you present your signs, symptoms, and medical history to two different doctors, it can be alarming to get 2 totally different diagnoses. Which doctor is right? Could both doctors be wrong? How is a patient supposed to respond?

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, getting multiple opinions for a patient diagnosis is more accurate than relying on any one doctor. In the study, multiple clinicians and medical students made a diagnosis based on a set of prospective cases. Across the medical cases, independent differential diagnoses were less accurate compared to diagnoses of multiple physicians.   

An editorial response asked, “Are 2 (or 3) heads better than 1?” There have been different approaches to differential diagnosis methods over the years. In the past, the most common process taught in teaching hospitals was based on classic clinicopathologic conferences (CPCs). Doctors would approach a patient and collect a standard set of data, and with that data, come up with a list of all possible diagnoses. Then, using a process to rule out the wrong diagnoses until the final diagnosis was determined.  

Another approach, known as the heuristic approach to medical conditions, uses cognitive shortcuts to arrive at an acceptable conclusion. Generally, doctors use the brain’s shortcuts to come up with fast and efficient responses for the most likely scenario, even if there are other possible diagnoses. However, this approach is also prone to errors. 

Doctors, just like everyone, have biases even if we don’t think we do or try to ignore them. This includes recency bias, bias based on framing of the information, primacy bias, anchor bias, and confirmation bias. These biases can make even the most scientifically minded doctors come to the wrong conclusion, and feel very confident in their wrong answer. 

Another approach that may not rely on a single doctor’s opinion is getting multiple opinions or crowdsourcing problem-solving. This is like when a doctor gets a second opinion from a colleague or refers the case to a specialist. There are benefits to this approach but also limitations. Remember, you can always ask for a second opinion. Given the increased acceptance of crowdsourcing among doctors, your doctor may even recommend putting your case to other doctors to get other opinions. 

What Damages Can I Recover in a Medical Malpractice Case?

Damages are supposed to compensate you for your losses. Money may never be able to repair your body fully or take away the pain you suffered but it can help you recover after a medical injury. Medical malpractice damages can include both economic and non-economic damages, including:

  • Medical bills
  • Continuing medical costs
  • Loss of income
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress

If a loved one died because of the wrong diagnosis, you may be able to file a claim on their behalf to hold the doctors and hospitals liable for their damages. A wrongful death lawsuit can help you recover compensation for loss of support, funeral expenses, burial costs, and medical bills. Talk to a medical malpractice lawyer about your case and your legal rights for recovery. 

How Can I File a Malpractice Claim Against the Doctor Who Made the Wrong Diagnosis?

Even if you aren’t sure if you were misdiagnosed, you can talk to an experienced team of medical malpractice professionals for help. Medical malpractice lawyers, like the trial attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian, have extensive experience in malpractice claims because they focus on just these types of cases. They can review your case, have medical experts review your records, and find out what was the cause of your medical injuries. 

With the right legal team on your side, you will have the resources to help you recover damages after suffering a false diagnosis injury. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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