Over 12 million adults each year in the United States who seek medical care receive a misdiagnosis from their doctor. In a Harvard Medical Practice Study, initial misdiagnosis accounted for 17% of preventable errors in hospitalized patients, and a systematic review of autopsy studies over four decades concluded that almost 9% of patients had at least one major misdiagnosis that went undetected while the patient was alive. The conclusions of these two studies imply that thousands of hospitalized patients die every year due to patient misdiagnosis. These types of deaths often go unreported in order to avoid liability. Medical malpractice deaths are made all the more tragic because they could have been prevented.
Why Do Doctors Misdiagnose Patients?
Researchers have examined some of the root causes of patient misdiagnosis at the individual clinician level. This research has been guided by cognitive psychology, which studies how a person processes information and then develops a plan of attack. In health care, when doctors receive information, research has now shown that they frequently use shortcuts or “rules of thumb” to inform their initial diagnosis, especially with patients whose symptoms follow a common pattern. While these shortcuts are useful and timesaving, they do not necessarily take into account unique patient characteristics and symptoms.
Whether the doctor may diagnose a current patient based on a previous case, be stuck on the initial diagnosis given to the patient instead of taking in new information given, or have their diagnostic decision-making ability hampered by bias, doctors have a duty to appropriately diagnose their patients using all information given at all times – even if that means changing their diagnosis to better fit the patient’s symptoms and subsequent treatments.
Some other factors that contribute to patient misdiagnosis include:
- Poor teamwork and communication between doctors and assisting medical professionals
- Lack of communication between clinicians from separate practices
- Failure to obtain or follow up on test results
- Overcrowded, chaotic hospital environment
- Fear of being liable for malpractice
Medical misdiagnosis can be incredibly dangerous for a patient. When a doctor’s misdiagnosis leads to incorrect patient treatment, delayed treatment, or no treatment at all, the patient’s illness or injury can become much worse and they may die. For example, while being treated a patient may be prescribed medication for the wrong illness. That medication could harm the patient and have undesired side effects. If a patient is misdiagnosed with serious medical conditions that require surgery, they may undergo unnecessary surgical procedures that leave them in pain and recovering for a significant amount of time. All medical errors, including misdiagnosis, are costly and may have the patient facing hefty medical bills that they were not prepared for.
Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions
Misdiagnosis happens with many conditions; however, it occurs more often with some conditions than others, including:
- Cancer – One of the worst diagnoses a patient receives, cancer is a progressive disease. This means it may take weeks to months to spread throughout the body. When caught early, treatments provide better outcomes for patients. If there is a delay in diagnosis or failure to diagnose, cancer can spread throughout the body with devastating consequences.
- Infections – Infectious diseases can spread throughout a hospital with a single touch. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated “on any given day, about 1 in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection.” The most common include pneumonia and surgical site infections. Additionally, gastrointestinal infections, urinary tract infections, and primary bloodstream infections occur often.
- Meningitis – Bacterial meningitis is very serious. The disease spreads by close contact with someone who has the infection. At first, the disease presents as a simple fever, but progresses rapidly within a matter of hours. Patients with bacterial meningitis require aggressive intravenous drugs.
Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions Requiring Emergency Medical Treatment
- Stroke – An interruption in the blood supply to the brain causes patients to suffer a stroke. Patients need immediate emergency medical care to minimize damage and ensure the best chance of recovery. Strokes are one of the most commonly misdiagnosed neurological conditions.
- Heart attack – When patients experience interruption of the blood flow to the heart, they face serious injury or even death. Patients must go to an ER, receive a diagnosis of a heart attack, and receive immediate treatment for a good patient outcome. Any delay or failure to diagnose greatly increases the likelihood of serious organ damage or even death.
- Blood clot – Blood clots that form inside the body can pose a serious health risks. If and when they dislodge, clots can cause serious damage to the lungs, heart, brain, and more. If blood clots are not detected immediately, they can lead to death.
An Institute of Medicine report contends that most Americans will experience at least one medical diagnostic error in their lifetime. These errors can occur for a variety of reasons, including doctor distraction and inattentiveness to the patient or failing to perform the appropriate diagnostic testing.
Regardless of the cause, if you or someone you love has been a victim of misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose in Pennsylvania, contact Lopez McHugh LLP as soon as possible for a confidential and free consultation. Our attorneys can answer your questions about misdiagnosis claims and explain your legal rights.