While most people think of medical malpractice in the context of a mistake made during surgery, the doctors who diagnose patients can also commit medical malpractice by misdiagnosing a medical malady. When this happens, the complications can be even more significant than when a surgeon makes a mistake on the operating table: A diagnostic error sends a patient down a costly path of medical treatment, but not only does this treatment create complications of its own, it also fails to correct the problem that the patient is having.
If it is not noticed and corrected soon after it happens, a missed diagnosis or an incorrect one can be fatal. Even when it is corrected before the repercussions become too severe to treat, the confusion and the time lost from the misdiagnosis can make it much more difficult to recover from the real medical issue that you are facing.
A doctor's misdiagnosis can be the grounds for a medical malpractice claim, if it amounted to a negligent use of medicine on the doctor's part. Having a skilled medical malpractice attorney review your case can be the best way to know for sure if you can get compensated for your struggles.
Different Kinds of Diagnostic Errors in Philadelphia
There are numerous different ways that a diagnostic error can occur. However, there are three broad categories for a misdiagnosis that can lead to medical malpractice:
- An incorrect diagnosis,
- A failed diagnosis, and
- A diagnosis that is correct, but delayed.
While close thought on these categories might make it seem like they overlay each other, each has its own distinct aspects that make it unique.
Incorrect diagnoses happen when you go to a doctor's and get diagnosed with a medical condition that is not the one that you are actually suffering from. As a result of the incorrect diagnosis, you receive medical treatment for the wrong thing, all while your actual medical condition worsens. In many cases, the medical treatment that you are receiving exacerbates the condition you are really suffering from, making it worse and creating new symptoms that continue to stymie your doctor's efforts to correctly identify what it is that you are suffering from.
A failed diagnosis occurs when you see a doctor and are suffering from a medical condition, but the doctor does not diagnose you with anything, at all. You leave the doctor's office with the falsely held belief that there is nothing wrong with you, all while your condition continues to worsen, unchecked by treatment.
Finally, a delayed diagnosis happens when a doctor fails to recognize a medical condition for a period of time before realizing their mistake and making the correct diagnosis. However, in many cases, by the time they realize their mistake, it is too late for you to get the treatment that you need to recover fully, or will have suffered irreparable harm from the disease that is ailing you.
However, not all diagnostic errors amount to medical malpractice. In order for a missed diagnosis to be considered malpractice, it has to stem from a doctor's negligence, which means it falls so far below the normal standard of care that you can expect from a medical professional that the law is willing to make them liable for their mistake. Even if the diagnostic error was a result of the doctor's negligence, though, the error has to cause an injury for it to be compensable under medical malpractice law.
The Process of Diagnosing a Patient
Diagnostic errors can occur at any point during the diagnosis process. This process involves three very basic steps:
- Gathering the relevant facts about the patient and their condition,
- Applying the facts and the data about the patient to what is known in the medical community, and
- Determining the correct medical condition based on the symptoms, or coming to a differential diagnosis of only a few possible outcomes and returning to step one to figure out which one it is.
Many diagnostic errors happen because of a negligent mistake that was made in the first step of the diagnosis process. This step is often the most onerous on the medical field because it involves taking the time to run and process the results of numerous tests, from MRIs to physical examinations. Not running enough tests, or ordering the wrong ones that do not reveal the necessary symptoms to make a proper diagnosis, are some of the most common sources of a missed diagnosis.
However, many doctors also make mistakes in the second step of the diagnostic process. The medical field changes rapidly, with new studies revealing new insights into diseases and how to treat them, and new medical technologies being patented every year. It takes time and effort to stay up to date on these developments, and doctors often struggle to do so or feel they do not need to make the effort in order to run their business. In some cases, this can lead to a failed diagnosis, as your doctor uses out-dated techniques or medical knowledge to make a decision on how to treat your condition.
Finally, the last step in the diagnostic process can lead to medical malpractice if a doctor fails to adequately monitor your progress through a differential diagnosis. A differential diagnosis happens when the symptoms you are presenting could be explained by any of several different medical conditions. In order to determine which condition you are dealing with, doctors will try teasing out more symptoms or treating one of the possible conditions – often the most severe or immediately dangerous – to gather more information to determine your true condition, or to protect you from the worst possible scenario. However, this requires extensive monitoring for the doctor to glean as much information as possible from the differential diagnosis process. If they do not keep up to speed with your evolving condition and order the appropriate tests to catch new or changing symptoms, it could cause an incorrect or a delayed diagnosis.
Diagnostic Error Statistics
Out of all of the different kinds of medical malpractice, diagnostic errors are among the most common in Philadelphia and across the United States. In his book Clinical Reasoning in the Health Professions, cognitive psychologist Arthur Elstein has concluded that doctors miss the proper diagnosis between 10 and 15% of the time.
This estimate of the number and likelihood of a diagnostic error is supported by numerous other studies, as well. One of the most reliable methods for determining if a medical diagnosis has been missed or erroneously made is an autopsy. Autopsies can determine the exact reason for a person's death, so when they are compared to the diagnosis that was given for a patient, they can shine an important light onto the quality and accuracy of the diagnosis that had been made. One study, which used autopsies to compare the diagnostic accuracy in hospitals in 1972, 1982, and 1992, found that, while diagnostic accuracy improved over the time period, there were still major discrepancies between a patient's diagnosis and what their autopsy found in 14% of the cases covered in 1992.
Compounding the complexities of diagnostic errors, their prevalence varies widely depending on the medical field, as some diseases and medical conditions are more difficult to find than others. According to one study, which looked at medical malpractice claims for diagnostic errors and at autopsy studies, found that the following five illnesses and conditions were misdiagnosed the most often:
- Cancers or their precursors,
- Heart attacks,
- Pulmonary embolisms (suddenly blocked lung arteries, typically resulting from blood clots), and
- Cardiovascular diseases, often involving the buildup of plaque in arteries.
Numbers from a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) were even more striking. According to them, around 5% of adults in high-income countries like the United States experienced diagnostic errors in outpatient settings every year. More than half of these incidents had the potential to cause severe harm to the patient. When it came to diagnosing cancer, though, this number increased to 7%.
When Diagnostic Errors Can Amount to Malpractice in Philadelphia
Because of the complexity of the medical field, just because you were misdiagnosed does not necessarily mean that the doctor you were seeing at the time was negligent. There are lots of diseases and medical conditions, and even more symptoms that they can present. Medicine is still an inexact science, with lots of important facts about the human body still unknown.
As a result, not all diagnostic errors amount to medical malpractice. Those that do, however, all have the following three things in common:
- A doctor-patient relationship,
- The doctor was negligent, and
- The patient was harmed because of this negligence.
The Doctor-Patient Relationship
Many people are surprised by how many medical malpractice claims are doomed because there was no doctor-patient relationship between a patient and the physician who made a misdiagnosis. However, this relationship is an absolute requirement in order to prevail on a medical malpractice lawsuit: It would be unfair to hold doctors liable to people who were not even their own patients.
According to the American Medical Association (AMA), a doctor-patient, or patient-physician, relationship “exists when a physician serves a patient's medical needs,” and is generally “entered into by mutual consent between physician and patient (or surrogate).” However, the AMA also recognizes that there are times when this relationship exists, despite a lack of mutual consent by both the doctor and the patient. These cases include when the patient is receiving emergency medical care, or medical care at the request of the patient's treating physician.
Importantly, this means that less formal interactions that you have with doctors will rarely constitute a doctor-patient relationship for the purposes of medical malpractice. If you learn that someone is a doctor while in a bar, and you ask him or her to take a look at a rash, any diagnostic error that they make in the bar will likely not be grounds for a malpractice claim because there is no doctor-patient relationship.
A Physician's Negligence
Once a patient-physician relationship has been proven, the next step is to show that the doctor was negligent when they missed your diagnosis.
Doctors and physicians are legally required to provide medical care that adheres to a reasonable standard of quality for the given circumstances. For better or for worse, this means that a doctor's required standard of conduct can change when the context changes: A doctor who uses latex gloves on a patient with an allergy to latex is far more likely to be found negligent if this happened in a hospital, where the doctor has access to the patient's charts and all of their medical history, than if it happened while the doctor was doing a shift in an ambulance and did not even know the patient's name.
The Patient Has to Suffer Harm
If a doctor commits medical malpractice but no one suffers from it, then the law will not make the doctor compensate the victims of their mistake: There are no victims and nothing to compensate them for.
However, this is rarely the case, when it comes to diagnostic errors. Missed diagnoses prevent the patient from getting the medical help that they so desperately need to make a full recovery from the medical condition that ails them. Just because there might not have been any pain or immediate suffering involved in the doctor's mistake does not mean that there was no harm. Their negligent conduct made a huge difference in the quality of medical care that you received, and prevented you from getting better. You deserve to be compensated for what you have lost.
Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Attorneys
This is where the medical malpractice attorneys at the Philadelphia law office of Gilman & Bedigian can help. By representing you in court for what you have lost due to a doctor's negligence, we can ensure you get the compensation that you need and deserve. Contact us online to get started.