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Medical Malpractice

Misdiagnosis Can Provide Grounds for a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

People rely on doctors to diagnose and treat illness and disease. Some people have limited choices for their providers because of their insurance plan, while others have more freedom. Regardless of who someone chooses as a provider, they expect their doctor to provide excellent medical care. Unfortunately, doctors and other medical professionals make mistakes. They do not always provide high-quality care, and sometimes it is difficult to discern between competent providers and those who fail to provide an acceptable standard of care.

Making accurate diagnoses is one of a doctor’s primary functions. Doctors who misdiagnose their patients put them at risk for permanent injury or death. Misdiagnosis is often a serious medical error that serves as grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. If you have suffered harm because of a doctor’s misdiagnosis, a medical malpractice lawyer can review your case and determine your eligibility to receive compensation. Until you can meet with an attorney, the information below offers introductory information.

This post will provide:

  • A deeper explanation of misdiagnosis.
  • The dangers of misdiagnosis.
  • Common medical errors and negligence that lead to misdiagnoses.
  • Information about the legal process of bringing a medical malpractice case after misdiagnosis.

Defining Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis is the common term that doctors and lawyers use to describe a scenario in which a doctor makes an incorrect diagnosis of an illness or disease.

From a legal perspective, misdiagnosis includes a range of diagnostic errors, including the failure to diagnose a condition or disease, delayed diagnosis of illness or disease, and the failure to recognize symptoms that aggravate an existing illness or disease. Physicians sometimes correctly diagnose one illness or disease but fail to diagnose or misdiagnose additional conditions or diseases.

Diagnostic errors that typically fall under the broad umbrella of misdiagnosis include:

  • Failure to screen for a specific disease or condition
  • Failure to refer a patient to a specialist
  • Improper or inadequate reading of diagnostic tests and scans
  • Failure to discuss symptoms with patients
  • Failure to obtain a thorough medical history
  • Failure to explore possible causes of a patient’s symptoms

Misdiagnosis Occurs More Often Than It Should

The exact number of patients who get misdiagnosed each year is a difficult statistic to pin down. The medical field has no reporting mechanism for misdiagnoses, leaving it to experts to make an educated guess based on other indicators. Those who study medical errors estimate that doctors misdiagnose approximately 5 percent of U.S. outpatients each year, translating to about 12 million people. Based on this statistic, one can extrapolate that one out of every 20 doctor visits resulting in a diagnosis includes at least one wrong diagnosis.

According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, every person will experience at least one diagnostic error during their life, some with fatal consequences. Misdiagnoses lead to 40,000 to 80,000 deaths and permanent disabilities each year in the United States. If you include patients from all clinical settings, the number of fatalities and disabilities is much higher.

The Mayo Clinic also found a high frequency of misdiagnosis. In analyzing data from patients seeking a second opinion, they found primary care physicians correctly diagnosed only 12 percent of patients. More than 20 percent of patients received the wrong diagnosis, and more than 65 percent needed changes to their initial diagnosis.

Mayo Clinic’s reputation often draws patients with the most complex and rare conditions, which could partially explain their alarming statistics. However, regardless of the actual percentage, misdiagnosis happens far more than it should.

Misdiagnosis Creates More Danger for Patients

Not all misdiagnoses have negative consequences for patients. Unfortunately, however, plenty of patients who have a misdiagnosed disease or illness face dangerous consequences that include:

#1. Worsened Condition

Getting diagnosed with the wrong illness or disease often leads to improper treatment. Patients who receive the wrong medication or treatment for their condition face: potential organ damage, organ failure, strokes, heart attacks, or other life-threatening events. Receiving improper treatment typically leads to a worsened condition. While the body is coping with the wrong medication, a person’s actual illness or disease is not getting the treatment or care to improve it.

#2. Aggressive Treatment

Different illnesses and diseases have different treatments depending on the stage of the illness or disease. Once a patient discovers a misdiagnosis, they can receive the proper treatment. However, their condition may have worsened because of the delayed diagnosis, so they must undergo a more aggressive treatment than if their doctor diagnosed them correctly in the first place. Aggressive treatment can cause additional pain and suffering, especially when patients need more chemotherapy, radiation, or other intense treatments.

#3. Unnecessary Surgery

A correct diagnosis can mean the difference between whether someone needs surgery to correct or treat a condition. Consider a situation where someone has a misdiagnosed or undiagnosed minor fracture or soft tissue injury. If a patient does not get the correct diagnosis, they likely will not immobilize their injury to give it time to heal, causing more damage. The increased damage can lead to a situation where surgery is the only option. Some patients have the luxury of avoiding surgery and all the risks that come with it when they receive a correct diagnosis of their illness, injury, or disease.

#4. Treatment Delays

Fortunately, some people who receive a misdiagnosis immediately seek a second opinion and determine their actual diagnosis. However, once misdiagnosis occurs, the clock begins ticking. Each day someone goes without accurate diagnosis delays the beginning of their treatment. Survival of the most deadly diseases and conditions often depends on early detection. Patients who receive delayed treatment sometimes find their treatment is not as effective as it would have been if they had started sooner.

#5. Death

Any of the above dangers associated with misdiagnoses can ultimately lead to death. Patients can lose their lives because of a worsening condition and die from receiving the incorrect treatment for their condition. Additionally, receiving unnecessary treatments can cause various medical complications, which could be fatal.

Causes of Misdiagnosis

System breakdown and human error are two general causes of misdiagnoses. Doctors suffer from the same limitations and biases as every other person. However, these limitations and biases can have treacherous outcomes when they seep into practice. In the last 100 years, scientists and researchers have identified over 10,000 diseases and more than 3,500 diagnostic tests to identify them.

However, the number of symptoms that patients experience is far less, and many diseases and conditions share one or more of the same symptoms. For example, blood in the urine can indicate hundreds of different conditions and options for testing. Doctors do not always choose the proper tests on their first attempt.

System breakdown refers to issues in the local healthcare system that lead to diagnostic errors. Healthcare systems connect various practices, procedures, processes, and technology. These connections sometimes break down because of miscommunication, misunderstanding, negligence, and incompetence. When breakdowns lead to misdiagnoses, the results could harm patients.

Examples of Conditions that Doctors Commonly Misdiagnose

Doctors misdiagnose many illnesses and diseases, but some conditions lead to diagnostic errors more often than others. In part, this is because they are common illnesses or diseases. Other conditions have many symptoms that overlap with other potential diagnoses.

Some examples of diseases and conditions that often confuse doctors include:

  • Asthma, misdiagnosed as recurring bronchitis
  • Heart attacks, misdiagnosed as panic attacks or gastrointestinal problems
  • Lyme disease, misdiagnosed as depression or the flu
  • Parkinson’s disease, mistaken for a stroke, Alzheimer’s, or stress
  • Lupus, misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or rheumatoid arthritis

Research about diagnostic errors reveals that many mistakes happen when doctors misdiagnose cancer, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular events. In one study that took a closer look at diagnostic errors, researchers found that lung cancer, stroke, and sepsis are the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions. Even though misdiagnosis is common, not all diagnostic errors qualify as medical malpractice. Patients need to prove their misdiagnosis occurred because of negligence.

When Misdiagnosis Is Medical Malpractice

Misdiagnosis does not always constitute medical malpractice. A malpractice claim for misdiagnosis or another diagnostic error hinges on whether you can prove the error occurred due to negligence.

Winning a malpractice claim for misdiagnosis requires establishing:

  • Duty of Care. In medical malpractice claims, a duty of care is established through the doctor-patient relationship. Physicians have a legal obligation to provide care to their patients that meets standards within the medical community.
  • Breach of Duty. Negligence must include a breach of a doctor’s duty of care towards his patient. Misdiagnosis constitutes a breach of duty when doctors make decisions about testing, interpreting results, and treatment that strays from the standards set by the medical community.
  • Harm. Doctors can misdiagnose a patient and breach their duty of care, but it does not qualify as medical malpractice unless the patient suffers physical harm. The physical consequences of misdiagnosis vary greatly depending on the underlying condition. Harm could include adverse reactions to the wrong treatment, a worsened condition, unneeded surgery, and more.
  • Causation. The final element to prove that misdiagnosis occurred because of negligence is causation. A plaintiff must show that the doctor’s breach of duty caused the harm they suffered from the misdiagnosis. Establishing causation can be especially difficult with terminal diseases like cancer. For example, a doctor misdiagnoses a cancer patient who waits several months to get a second opinion. The patient then visits a second opinion physician and receives a correct diagnosis and treatment. The first doctor’s mistake potentially impacted the patient’s treatment options by causing the patient to delay treatment for several months. This patient would need to show that their medical outcome would have been different if not for the first doctor’s misdiagnosis.

Steps to Take After Misdiagnosis

Typically, most people visit their doctor after experiencing physical feelings or events outside normal functioning. They expect to get diagnosed and learn about their options for treatment. If someone feels worse or does not respond to treatment, their doctor could have misdiagnosed them. It is typically a good idea to seek a second opinion as soon as possible in these cases. However, some choose to let their doctor continue to treat them.

Suppose you suspect that your doctor misdiagnosed you, and you continue to seek treatment from that same doctor. In that case, you must protect your health and your eligibility to file a medical malpractice claim for misdiagnosis.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Follow your doctor’s orders to the letter. If you are not improving or your condition worsens, consider seeking a second opinion.
  • Follow your instincts. If something does not seem right, seek out a second opinion.
  • Do not purposefully let your condition worsen.
  • Always opt for a second opinion if you think it is necessary, regardless of what your physician instructs you to do.

Your health and well-being need to be your priority. When you have the chance, contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer to review your case and determine if your misdiagnosis serves as grounds for a medical malpractice claim.

Recovering Damages After Misdiagnosis

If you have suffered harm from your doctor’s misdiagnosis of your condition, you could have a viable medical malpractice claim. If you file a claim against the doctor or hospital responsible for your misdiagnosis, you could receive money for damages related to your case.

Examples of damages for which you might receive compensation include:

  • Current medical expenses and estimated future treatment costs, including diagnostic testing, surgery, rehabilitation, ambulance service, emergency room treatment, hospitalization, and prescription medicine
  • Current lost wages and estimated future lost wages if the misdiagnosis prevents you from returning to work or seeking future employment
  • Pain and suffering
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Disfigurement or permanent disability
  • Loss of consortium

If you have lost a loved one due to misdiagnosis, you could also recover damages related to your loss. An experienced medical malpractice lawyer can review your claim, advise you on which damages might apply to your situation, and answer any questions about wrongful death medical malpractice lawsuits related to misdiagnoses.