There are many ways in which a doctor or medical facility may be negligent in treating, or not treating, a patient. Malpractice requires that a doctor breach his or her duty to a patient, that the breach causes harm, and that the harm results in significant damages. All of these are often true in cases in which a doctor fails to diagnose a patient with an illness that they actually have.
Failure to diagnose, along with the similar delayed diagnosis, is the leading reason that patients file malpractice lawsuits. Not diagnosing a patient means that the patient does not receive treatment. In most cases this results in a worsening of the illness, more symptoms, greater pain and emotional distress, and often in higher medical bills. Patients should get second opinions if they don’t feel a doctor has diagnosed them correctly or at all.
What is Failure to Diagnose?
A medical malpractice case that cites failure to diagnose is when a patient claims that a doctor did not see the connection between symptoms and an illness. Failing to diagnose a condition is not always malpractice. A doctor is expected to do everything that is reasonable and that another similar medical professional would do to diagnose a patient. In some cases there may be an error that is out of the hands of the doctor, such as a mistake made in a laboratory test.
If negligence can be traced at all, it may be a valid malpractice case. For instance, if a laboratory technician made an error, that individual or the lab could be held liable. If a staff member in a hospital made a mistake that led to the doctor failing to diagnose a condition, the hospital could be held accountable and be found guilty of malpractice.
Failure to Diagnose is Common
Unfortunately for patients a failure to diagnose a patient is one of the most common of all types of medical negligence, according to a study of malpractice cases. The study looked at malpractice lawsuits in the U.S. and a few other countries. They found that failure to diagnose was the accusation in between 26 and 63 percent of cases, depending on the country.
The claims made most often cited a failure to diagnose cancer, heart attacks in adults, and meningitis in children. The most common end result in these cases was the death of the patient. The good news that the study researchers discovered was that doctors and the healthcare industry in general often learns from these failure to diagnose mistakes. For instance, many cases involved the failure to diagnose women with heart attacks. As a result, more attention has been paid to the very different symptoms of heart attack in women compared to men and healthcare workers have been better educated on how to identify a heart attack in a female patient.
The Consequences of Failing to Diagnose a Condition
Failure to diagnose is common as a medical malpractice type because the consequences can be very serious. In some instances, like when a patient is not diagnosed with the flu and recovers anyway, there are few consequences. However, many illnesses that go undiagnosed can cause a lot of harm later. Examples of the possible results of a failure to diagnose include:
- Delayed or no treatment.
- Worsening of the condition.
- Worsening of symptoms.
- Increased physical discomfort.
- Emotional distress.
- More medical bills and expenses.
- Temporary or permanent disability.
- Inability to work.
Failure to Diagnose Cancer
Not diagnosing any illness or condition can have very serious consequences for the patient, but few cases of failure to diagnose are more devastating than those in which the patient has cancer. Most types of cancer only get worse with time growing, spreading, and eventually becoming incurable and difficult to treat. A doctor who fails to diagnose cancer in a patient who actually has it may not find any tumors at all or may find growths and incorrectly label them as benign.
The state of New York’s Assembly passed a law in January of 2018 that would make it easier for patients with cancer to file malpractice lawsuits against the doctors who failed to diagnose them. Known as “Lavern’s Law,” the new law changes the beginning of the statute of limitations for these particular victims of malpractice from the date the malpractice, or failure to diagnose, occurred to the date on which the patient learns that they do have cancer and were victims of negligence.
The Assembly members who sponsored and voted for the new law agreed that patients with cancer might often need more time to file a lawsuit. Under the previous statute of limitations a cancer patient was likely to miss the deadline to file by the time they actually found out they had cancer. The statute of limitations is still two years and six months in New York, but the start date is now extended for these particular patients because of the life-and-death nature of cancer diagnoses.
Lavern’s Law was named after Lavern Wilkinson. The 41-year-old died after experiencing chest pains and not being diagnosed for the lung cancer that was actually killing her. By the time it was determined that there was an error in diagnosis, Lavern was severely ill and dying of cancer. She also was unable to file a malpractice lawsuit because the statute of limitations had run out.
Examples of Failure to Diagnose Cases
Cancer makes up an unfortunately large part of failure to diagnose medical malpractice cases. A failure to diagnose can be negligent and damaging for other illnesses and in a variety of settings. In Arizona, for instance, the state and the Corrections Director were held accountable in a court for not providing adequate medical care in the prison system. While the case did not involve individual malpractice suits, the court cited examples that included failure to diagnosis. One of these was the case of a prisoner whose liver cancer went undiagnosed so long that it caused extensive abdominal swelling and significant pain and distress.
Another example that went to trial over an undiagnosed blood clot ended in favor of the plaintiff with a $6.6 million award from the jury. The plaintiff was a 29-year-old woman who faces permanent medical problems after her post-surgical blood clot was not diagnosed. She suffered from a portal vein thrombosis, a clot between the liver and intestines, and now is unable to continue going to school or working full time.
A failure to diagnose can be a very serious medical error. Patients must be prepared to advocate on their own behalf to get the best care, all appropriate diagnostic tests, and second opinions, but ultimately they must rely on and trust doctors to make accurate diagnoses. If you have suffered from not being diagnosed, you may have a case for medical malpractice.