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How Often Do Doctors Get a Diagnosis Wrong?

A diagnosis is the identification of a medical illness or condition that is made based on an examination of the patient. Making a diagnosis is one of the most important roles provided by doctors. Doctors often need to make a diagnosis before they can begin to explore treatment options. 

Unfortunately, misdiagnosis is more common than you may suspect. Thousands of patients are misdiagnosed every year, delaying proper treatment and increasing the risk of harm. In some cases, the misdiagnosis is caused by the doctor’s failure to follow the standards of care. 

If you were misdiagnosed or the diagnosis was made too late, you may be a victim of medical malpractice. If you have questions about your rights to recover compensation for your injuries, contact experienced medical malpractice trial attorneys to understand your legal options and find out how you can recover damages. 

What Is a Medical Misdiagnosis?

A diagnosis involves identifying a disease, illness, or medical condition based on a patient examination, medical history, symptoms, and other factors. A misdiagnosis is a failure to properly diagnose a patient. With a misdiagnosis, the doctor may diagnose the wrong condition for the patient or fail to identify the proper diagnosis. 

There are a few ways a misdiagnosis can harm a patient. Without the right diagnosis, the patient may not get the treatment they need. This can delay care and allow dangerous medical conditions to continue untreated. For example, a misdiagnosis of the wrong type of cancer can allow cancer to grow and spread, leading to a worse outcome for the patient.

A misdiagnosis may also involve treating the patient for the wrong condition. Treating the patient for a condition they don’t have may not only be unnecessary but it can also cause harm and injury to the patient. A patient may end up undergoing unnecessary surgical procedures, taking unnecessary drugs, and being exposed to unnecessary medical risks. 

How Common Are Diagnostic Errors?

According to the BMJ, an estimated 12 million U.S. adults are affected by outpatient diagnostic errors. This means at least 1 in 20 U.S. adults is impacted by misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis. The consequences of these diagnostic errors can range from minor injuries to fatal errors. 

A study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland finds that 1 in 3 misdiagnoses result in serious injury or death. According to a review published in Clinical Medicine, “In the USA, misdiagnosis (26%) now rivals surgical accidents (25%) as the leading cause of medicolegal claims.”

According to one theory, one reason for medical misdiagnosis rates is that doctors have decision-making biases and feel a need to respond quickly, especially in emergency departments, clinics, and hospitals for acutely ill patients where time is limited. However, clinicians may benefit from taking enough time to “consider alternative possibilities and to analyze the evidence.” 

What Are the Most Common Misdiagnoses?

According to the Johns Hopkins study, almost 3/4ths of all diagnostic errors were attributed to 3 categories, known as The Big Three. These common diagnostic errors include: 

  • Cancer (37.8%)
  • Vascular events (22.8%) 
  • Infection (13.5%)

What Are the Most Common Cancer Misdiagnoses?

Cancer misdiagnosis can be among the most frightening types of diagnosis errors. Some of the common types of cancer that may be misdiagnosed include: 

Cancer diagnosis and treatment is a specialized type of medicine. Diagnosing cancer generally involves a cancer doctor reviewing diagnostic tests, tissue samples, biopsies, or cells under microscopic or chemical analysis. Other types of cancer diagnostics can include tissue cell proteins, DNA, and RNA analysis to detect cancer to identify the type of cancer and the best treatment options.   

Emergency Room Misdiagnosis

A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there are an estimated 7.4 million misdiagnosis errors made every year in emergency rooms. About 2.6 million people are injured by the misdiagnosis that could have been prevented if the right diagnosis had been made. Another 370,000 patients are permanently disabled or die because of emergency room misdiagnosis. 

Putting it into perspective, there are an average of 1,400 diagnostic errors made every year per emergency room. Patients who go to the emergency room for treatment may want to consider these numbers and consider getting a second opinion if the diagnosing doctor’s evaluation doesn’t make sense or the treatments aren’t working.

There are 5 conditions that account for almost 40% of all serious misdiagnosis-related injuries. The top 5 conditions that are misdiagnosed in emergency departments include: 

Stroke Misdiagnosis

According to the HHS study, a stroke was misdiagnosed almost 17% of the time. Stroke can present in different ways and there are different ways to diagnose a stroke or rule out a stroke as part of the differential diagnosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs and symptoms of a stroke can include: 

  • “Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.”

The FAST acronym can be used for a layperson’s review of possible stroke symptoms and what to do. 

  • F – Face. Does one side of the face droop when asked to smile?
  • A – Arms. Does one arm drift downward when asked to raise both arms?
  • S – Speech. Is the speech slurred or strange when asked to repeat a simple phrase?
  • T – Time. If any of the above, call 9-1-1 immediately. 

The most common type of stroke, an ischemic stroke, accounts for about 87% of stroke cases. A fatty tissue buildup or a blood clot blocks blood flow to the brain, causing tissue damage. An ischemic stroke can be followed by the above symptoms but some “silent strokes,” may have no symptoms at all. 

If a patient is being reviewed for a possible stroke, the doctor will generally conduct a physical exam, blood tests, and take diagnostic imaging. The doctor may also review the patient’s medical history and family medical history. Imaging tests can include computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), carotid ultrasound, echocardiogram, and cerebral angiogram. 

A stroke can be misdiagnosed because the patient’s symptoms align with other medical conditions or they report non-specific symptoms, like a headache or vertigo. Alternatively, symptoms that seem to match a possible stroke may be attributed to other conditions. 

According to a study published in Neuroepidemiology, “Patients with stroke misdiagnosis were commonly FAST-negative with nonspecific symptoms including altered mental status, dizziness, and nausea/vomiting.”

Heart Attack Misdiagnosis in Women

The symptoms of a heart attack in men often include the familiar warning signs:

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling weak or light-headed
  • Pain in the jaw, neck, or back
  • Pain in one or both arms or shoulders
  • Shortness of breath

However, the signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women can be different. Many women never experience the “tell-tale” signs of chest pain and discomfort. Women suffering from a heart attack may experience signs and symptoms that a doctor misdiagnosed as the flu, acid reflux, or anxiety. 

Many female patients report their doctors play down their symptoms, which could lead to a patient suffering a heart attack who is sent home with a recommendation to rest, which could be fatal. Further statistics show that women of color may have even lower rates of treatment for heart health care.

Why Is Spinal Cord Compression So Often Misdiagnosed?

Spinal cord injuries, including spinal cord compression, are serious injuries that can result in permanent damage. Immediate treatment can increase the chance of recovery for patients but untreated spinal cord injuries could lead to paralysis. 

According to the Annals of Emergency Medicine, emergency department misdiagnosis of spinal cord compression is common. The study recommends increased awareness of ambulatory dysfunction as a possible early sign of spinal cord compression, with or without other neurologic findings, which could improve diagnostic accuracy. 

How Common Is Infection Misdiagnosis?

According to the Johns Hopkins study, the most common types of infection misdiagnosis that account for most of the serious, misdiagnosis-related harms are: 

People suffer minor infections all the time but more serious infections may require more active medical care, including medication or surgery. Some patients are more vulnerable to infection injuries, including children, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems. 

Sepsis is an inflammatory immune response to infection in the body. When the body detects foreign bodies like bacteria or a virus, it can activate the immune system to defend against these outside sources. Left untreated, sepsis can lead to tissue damage, organ function, and death. 

There are other conditions that may mimic sepsis and lead to a misdiagnosis. Diagnosing sepsis often involves vitals and blood tests to see if the patient meets sepsis criteria, including heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and white blood cell (WBC) counts. However, these criteria are not limited to sepsis and could be associated with other conditions, including: 

  • Anaphylaxis
  • Gastrointestinal emergency
  • Pulmonary disease
  • Metabolic abnormality 
  • Toxin ingestion/withdrawal
  • Vasculitis
  • Spinal injury

What Are Negligent Causes of a Wrong Diagnosis?

Not all wrong diagnoses are medical malpractice. Medical malpractice can involve a breach of the medical standards of care in diagnosing a patient. This means that during the treatment and diagnosis of a patient, the doctor did something that deviated from medical standards, which caused injury or harm to the patient. 

For example, if you go to the emergency department and tell the doctor about your condition, the standard medical practices may indicate you should be given certain diagnostic tests to make a diagnosis or rule out other conditions. If your doctor failed to order the diagnostic tests that other reasonable doctors would have under the condition and it led to a misdiagnosis, you could be a victim of malpractice. 

Doctors undergo years of education, testing, training, and supervised on-the-job experience. Doctors are supposed to understand standard medical practices and follow them in caring for their patients. When a doctor does something that goes outside of standard care, it can put the patient at risk of harm. Examples of negligent care could include: 

  • Failure to monitor patients
  • Failure to follow up with patients
  • Failure to order diagnostic testing, imaging, or blood tests
  • Failure to listen to the patient’s complaints and concerns
  • Failure to get informed consent for any medical procedures
  • Documentation errors
  • Medication errors
  • Failure to follow surgical protocols

What Are Your Legal Options After a Wrong Diagnosis?

If you were injured because of the wrong diagnosis, you may be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit to recover any damages. Damages in a medical malpractice case include any losses or harm related to negligent medical care. Medical malpractice damages can include: 

  • Medical bills
  • Lost income
  • Future medical needs
  • Loss of earning potential
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of companionship

Make sure you talk to a medical malpractice attorney in time. There is a limited amount of time to file a medical malpractice lawsuit in each state. There may be additional time for children who suffer a wrong diagnosis injury or for patients who only discovered the error after the fact. If you file too late, your claim can be denied. Talk to your medical malpractice team as soon as you find out about a diagnosis error so your case will be filed in time. 

If you are not sure whether your injuries were caused by a diagnostic error, you can always get a free consultation from an experienced medical malpractice law firm. The experienced trial attorneys will understand what to look for in your medical records to identify possible misdiagnosis mistakes. Your attorneys can also have a medical expert review your records to get an expert analysis of your case. Do not hesitate to contact Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.

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