Is Misdiagnosis Grounds For A Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?

Is misdiagnosis grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit?

Medical science is a complex thing, and especially during the diagnostic stage, it involves a lot of guesswork. Medical professionals rely on the patient's description of their symptoms, their medical history and various genetic factors to narrow down the list of possible diagnoses. Once this is done, they may order additional testing that can help confirm their findings or give them reason to explore other possibilities.

There is a lot of pressure to get a diagnosis right as soon as possible, so that the right treatment is prescribed. Generally speaking, the sooner treatment gets started, the better the chances that it will be effective, and when it comes to serious problems such as cancers and heart conditions, this can mean the difference between life and death.

What Constitutes Malpractice?

Medical malpractice happens when a health professional makes a mistake that results in unnecessary complications for a patient, for health and/or financial reasons. At times, misdiagnosing a patient can have this effect.

Many medical symptoms can be interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, chest pain and breathing issues could be a sign of indigestion, a panic attack or a heart attack. Because of the challenge that comes with making an accurate diagnosis, misdiagnosis is a common reason for a medical malpractice claim. However, just because a doctor's first guess was off the mark, that doesn't mean he/she is guilty of medical malpractice.

As in any case of malpractice, to show malpractice based on the wrong diagnosis, the patient needs to show that the doctor's skill did not match or exceed what is considered to be the applicable "medical standard of care" for the patient's circumstance. The doctor's process in deciding on a diagnosis and treatment method should be in line with what another medical professional would have prescribed given the same information and having similar training. Even if the care is substandard, the patient must go on to prove that the doctor's lack of care actually led to harm for the patient. In most cases, it is a person's own doctor who is most susceptible to a lawsuit for misdiagnosis, although occasionally other professionals such as nurses, lab techs and specialists who have had professional contact with the patient may play a role as well.

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Conditions Commonly Misdiagnosed

There are two main elements of misdiagnosis:

  • One is declaring that a patient has a disease or condition that he or she does not have and subsequently pursuing a course of treatment that is unnecessary and potentially harmful.
  • The other concern is that while treatment is being pursued for the wrong ailment, the true problem is still a mystery. While the unknown condition remains undiagnosed, patients often get worse instead of better and their chance of recovery diminishes or becomes more costly.

Consequences Of Diagnosing The Wrong Ailment

Some of the most common misdiagnoses include:

  • Recurring bronchitis - Many people get bronchitis-type symptoms easily, which can include a lot of coughing and wheezing. But asthma brings similar symptoms and requires a different kind of treatment and closer monitoring.
  • Cancer - Missing a cancer diagnosis can allow the disease to spread, sometimes to the point where effective treatment is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. But diagnosing cancer when there is none is also troublesome. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery are sometimes nearly as difficult to bear as the cancer itself. When the disease was not present in the first place, there is a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on the body.
  • Indigestion - If a doctor knows of a patient's diet of spicy or fatty food, he or she may assume that chest pains are indigestion or heartburn, especially if the patient is relatively young. Sometimes, however, these pains may point to a heart attack.
  • Panic attacks - A person who is generally nervous or anxious might have chest pains and trouble breathing, which could indicate a panic attack. The patient might be prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, but if the attack was a heart attack, this won't help the situation, and some treatments for panic could put the heart under unnecessary strain.
  • Migraines - Migraines are severe headaches that can strike people in every age group. Because they are common and patients are normally anxious to get relief, they are a frequent diagnosis, but sometimes these headaches are a sign of something more serious, such as a stroke. In many cases, a person may have mild strokes before having a major one that results in severe disability or death.
  • The flu - Many conditions bring on flu-like symptoms, and some, such as a staph infection, can be more serious if they are not caught.

Negligent Mistakes

When a misdiagnosis case is considered, negligent mistakes by a doctor may have delayed the right diagnosis or errors were made during the testing process:

  • Lab results may be misinterpreted.
  • A physician may fail to order specific diagnostic testing.
  • When a patient's problem goes beyond a care provider's skill set, he or she may need to be referred to a specialist, and failing to do this could be construed as malpractice in some instances.

Physicians also have an obligation to listen to their patients, monitor their response to treatment and follow up when additional concerns arise. Some of this follow-up can be done on their own, but often it is necessary for specialists to step in and lend their skills as well.

Avoiding Emotional Accusations

For the most part, physicians do their best to provide their patients with the right diagnosis, and from time to time, the wrong diagnosis can happen to almost anyone. Just because a doctor makes an error doesn't mean he or she is incompetent or guilty of malpractice.

However, it is important to take action if you do suspect malpractice. It is advisable to bring copies of your records to your attorney, who can help you sort through the evidence to determine whether you have a case.

The Donahey Law Firm, LLC, represents clients in medical malpractice cases in Ohio. To schedule a free consultation to discuss your options with an attorney, please call us at 866-918-5886 or complete our online contact form.