The Duty To Properly Diagnose

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Most people think that medical malpractice involves major mistakes such as wrong site surgeries. But one of the most deadly mistakes doctors can make is an error in diagnosis.

Diagnosis errors are the most common medical malpractice claim. Studies estimate that between 80,000 and 160,000 patients in the United States suffer significant injuries or death due to a diagnosis error. In other words, diagnostic errors account for 34% of disabilities and 40% of deaths that result in malpractice payments.

About 5% of all diagnoses in the United States have an error, which translates to 62 diagnostic errors per doctor each year, and 18 million diagnostic errors overall in the country.

Duty to Diagnose

Healthcare facilities and healthcare professionals have a duty to provide all of the necessary tools for a diagnosis. Healthcare facilities must have up to date medical capabilities and functioning equipment, and they must maintain a healthcare staff that has the necessary knowledge needed to diagnose and treat patients.

Health care professionals have the responsibility to complete a full personal and family medical history of the patient, to perform a full physical examination, and to provide a reasonable diagnosis as any other similarly qualified professional would provide in the same situation.

If a patient has a family history of cancer but a doctor fails to note an increased cancer risk, the patient could suffer a delayed diagnosis that results in extra expensive medical care or possible permanent damage to the patient’s health.

Similarly, a diagnosis error can occur when a doctor fails to perform a physical examination or finds evidence of a disease in a diagnostic test but fails to act on the test results.

Doctors have extensive training in the diagnosis process. They should understand all of the necessary steps of a differential diagnosis (a process that rules out other possible conditions), and should be able to properly implement the steps.

A diagnosis error does not automatically mean that a doctor was negligent. Doctors can still face diagnosis errors even if they followed all the proper diagnostic steps and provided a reasonable diagnosis.

If doctors fail to follow diagnosis guidelines and if that failure results in serious injury to the patient, the doctor can be held liable for injuries.

Types of Diagnosis Errors

The most common types of diagnosis errors include:

Delayed Diagnosis:

In the case of delayed diagnosis, the patient would have suffered harm even if the medical professional had not been involved, but the delay in diagnosis contributed to worse harm. For example, a woman visits her primary care physician complaining of fatigue and other symptoms. She is informed that she is merely under too much stress and should engage in self-care and relaxing techniques, then comes in for a follow-up a few months later. This pattern repeats itself for a few months until the physician finally agrees to run lab work, which reveals that the woman has a malignant tumor on her thyroid. At that point the cancer is discovered, it is much further advanced than when the woman made her first visit complaining of fatigue. The treatment required now is much more extensive and carries a much higher risk than the treatment which could have been performed if the cancer was discovered at the outset.


In the case of misdiagnosis, a medical professional examines symptoms and identifies the medical cause incorrectly. Misdiagnosis could result in treatment for a condition that the patient isn’t even suffering while the actual disease remains untreated. Using another example, a man visits his primary care physician complaining of a cough. The doctor inaccurately diagnosis the man with a bacterial infection and prescribes antibiotics, when, in fact, the man was suffering from a viral infection. The antibiotics do nothing, while the viral condition worsens, leading to pneumonia and severe dehydration, which causes the man to collapse and be hospitalized for several days. The inaccurate diagnosis and resulting treatment prevented the patient in this scenario from seeking proper care for his ailment.

Missed Diagnosis:

A patient is examined and given a clean bill of health when he or she was actually suffering from an ailment that was not identified.

Failure to Diagnose a Related Disease:

In this case, the physician accurately diagnoses an illness that the patient is suffering from, but fails to identify a condition that is closely related to the diagnosed illness. For example, diabetic individuals can have issues with kidney function due to the effect diabetes has on the metabolic process. If a doctor accurately diagnosed a patient with diabetes but failed to diagnose kidney malfunction, despite symptoms, this may be a failure to diagnose a related disease.

Failure to Diagnose an Unrelated Disease:

In this case, the physician accurately diagnoses an illness but fails to identify a second condition that is not related to the diagnosed illness. For example, if a patient presents with localized pain in the ankle following a fall while hiking, the physician orders x-rays and accurately diagnoses a fracture. However, the patient also has an elevated temperature and is, in reality, suffering from a staph infection due to contact with stagnant water during the hike. Even though the patient has an elevated temperature (indicative of an infection), the physician does not investigate further and only diagnoses the ankle injury. This could be an instance of failure to diagnose an unrelated disease.

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