According to the American Journal of Medicine, each year up to 15 percent of patients suffer needlessly as a result of wrong diagnoses, which include misdiagnoses and delayed diagnoses. A wrong diagnosis is considered medical malpractice if the doctor’s actions “deviated from the medical standard of care” of similarly trained doctors.
Each allegation of medical malpractice is decided in court, based on its own merits. The majority of wrongful diagnoses occur because doctors:
- Fail to order appropriate screening for illnesses and diseases
- Misinterpret lab and test results
- Fail to refer patients to specialists
- Fail to spend adequate time with patients to address symptoms
- Fail to follow up with patients, their test results, and with the referred specialists
A wrong diagnosis won’t always place a patient’s health in jeopardy. People often ask if they can sue a doctor who made a harmless mistake. The answer is, no. Unless a doctor’s mistake results in serious injury, the chances of winning a medical malpractice case are small.
Some illnesses, whose symptoms can be caused by a number of factors, are very difficult to diagnose. Even the best doctors can review a patient’s symptoms and come up with completely different diagnoses.
To minimize wrong diagnoses, most doctors adhere to the “Differential Method.” Using this technique, a doctor will create a list of possible diagnoses which could be attributed to the patient’s symptoms. From there, the doctor will begin ordering tests. As each test comes back negative, the doctor will cross out the associated illness and move on to the next one. This process of elimination continues until the illness is identified.
While the differential method has historically been the most effective way to diagnose an illness or injury, there are occasions when a doctor hesitates to use it. This could be due to the doctor’s arrogance or laziness, or because the patient’s insurance company won’t pay for all the tests.
Access to sophisticated diagnostic tools, such as MRIs, CT scans, and PET scans, must be factored in when discussing wrong diagnosis and medical malpractice. Also, unlike larger metropolitan areas where doctors can specialize in specific areas of medicine, doctors in rural areas have to be generalists. These doctors can’t be held to the same medical standard of care as doctors with specialized practices.
An overlooked or missed diagnosis can mean the patient isn’t prescribed the medication or treatment needed to successfully address the illness. As a result, the patient can needlessly suffer while her condition worsens, sometimes to a point where medical treatment no longer matters.
Example: Parkinson’s Disease
Tom is a fifty-five year old man. For the last few months he’d been experiencing hand tremors, fatigue, difficulty swallowing, and was having balance coordination problems (medically referred to as “postural instability”).
Concerned, Tom’s family doctor referred him to a neurologist, who was arrogant and dismissive. After spending only a few minutes talking with Tom, he said there was nothing wrong with him but stress, overwork, and obesity. He wrote a prescription for muscle relaxants and sent Tom on his way.
A month later, Tom’s symptoms persisted, so he got a second opinion from another neurologist. After thirty minutes reviewing Tom’s symptoms, speaking with and examining him, the doctor ordered a PET scan, MRI, and CT scan. A week later, the doctor called Tom in to her office and informed him all the tests pointed to Parkinson’s disease.
In the above example, technically, the first neurologist committed medical malpractice. He completely failed to diagnose a disease whose symptoms he should be familiar with. Does Tom have the basis of a malpractice case based on failure to diagnose?
The answer is, probably not. To have the basis of a valid malpractice case based on a missed diagnosis requires two major elements:
- The act itself. In the above case, the act would be the neurologist’s complete failure to recognize the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
- Damages. To have a legitimate malpractice case, Tom must be able to show the failure to diagnose resulted in damages.
In the above case, Tom’s damages might include: the anxiety the missed diagnosis caused him over the past month, the deductible he had to pay to see the first neurologist, medical building parking fees, wages from the day he missed work for the appointment, and possibly, the amount of gasoline he used traveling to and from the doctor’s office.
The neurologist’s failure to diagnose Tom’s Parkinson’s disease did not cause the disease. The illness existed before and after Tom consulted with the neurologist.
Let’s change the facts a bit. Let’s say Tom relied on the first neurologist’s diagnosis. He took the muscle relaxants and lost some weight, and a year went by during which his symptoms worsened. For a year he suffered pain and discomfort associated with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Tom’s symptoms worsened, so he found another family doctor. Concerned with his symptoms, this doctor referred Tom to another neurologist, who very quickly ordered an MRI, CT scan, and PET scan. Within a week this neurologist diagnosed Tom with Parkinson’s disease.
While it’s true the original neurologist didn’t cause Tom’s Parkinson’s disease, if he had properly diagnosed it, he could have prescribed medications to relieve Tom’s pain and discomfort. In this scenario, Tom’s damages would be substantial. What is a year of unnecessary pain and discomfort worth? A jury might think it’s worth a lot.
A misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor fails to recognize symptoms which are clearly attributable to one illness, and instead attributes them to another illness. When this occurs, the actual illness may go untreated, resulting in worsening symptoms, and a faster onset of the illness.
A doctor who misdiagnoses the actual illness may prescribe unnecessary medications and treatments, which may have serious side effects, or result in totally unrelated medical conditions. While the doctor is treating the wrong illness, the real one can worsen to the point where it may be too late to treat, even when properly diagnosed.
Example: Ciliac Disease
Jane is a twenty-five-year old woman who, for the last couple of months, has been suffering from stomach pain, cramping, nausea and weight loss. She went to see a local doctor, and completed a questionnaire regarding any diseases which run in her family. She clearly wrote “celiac disease.” The doctor listened to Jane’s description of her symptoms, examined her, and diagnosed her with a peptic ulcer.
If the doctor had looked at Jane’s chart, he would have seen there was a history of celiac disease in her family. Instead, he prescribed clarithromycin and metronidazole; two very potent antibiotics.
Six months later, after taking antibiotics twice a day, Jane began to display jaundice, bloating, and back pain, along with the same symptoms she had when she saw the original doctor. After seeing an internist and having tests performed, Jane was diagnosed with hepatic liver failure. The internist cited the use of antibiotics as the direct cause.
X-rays and a CT scan revealed Jane did not have an ulcer, nor was it likely she had one six months ago when the first doctor diagnosed her with a peptic ulcer.
Also, Jane’s original symptoms were still present, and had seemed to worsen. Her internist ordered a colonoscopy, which revealed all the villi lining her intestines were destroyed. The primary cause for this was the ingestion of wheat products. (Celiac disease can be controlled by avoiding wheat and other products containing gluten.)
This is a clear case of medical malpractice resulting from doctor misdiagnosis. The original doctor misdiagnosed Jane with one illness, when she actually had another. As a result, her celiac disease raged on, damaging her liver and causing unnecessary pain and suffering.
A delayed diagnosis occurs when a doctor fails to recognize symptoms in time. As a result, the patient’s condition worsens. In some cases, a delayed diagnosis can result in an illness progressing to a “point of no return.” If the diagnosis hadn’t been delayed, appropriate treatment could have been provided and the patient may have survived, or at least not suffered needlessly.
Example: Prostate Cancer
Ben is a sixty-year-old man experiencing urinary tract pain, unusual fatigue, and persistent pain in his pelvic region. Instead of recognizing possible symptoms of prostate cancer, due to a history of prostate cancer in his family, Ben’s doctor prescribed pain medication for his back, and suggested he get more sleep.
Eight months later, with his condition worsening, Ben went back to see his doctor. This time, concerned about the possibility of prostate cancer, the doctor performed a digital rectal exam and ordered a PSA test, which looks for prostate-specific antigens. Tom’s PSA revealed his antigen levels at eight per milliliter of blood, indicating advanced prostate cancer.
As a direct result of the delayed diagnosis, Tom had to undergo radical chemotherapy, which would not have been the case if his diagnosis wasn’t delayed eight months. The pain and suffering from the chemotherapy, and the anxiety he now has to endure wondering if he’ll survive the cancer, are Tom’s damages. He likely has a strong medical malpractice case bsaed on the delayed diagnosis.
Get an Attorney
If you’ve been the victim of a wrong diagnosis, seek legal advice immediately. A medical malpractice case should never be handled alone. These cases are incredibly complex, and hard fought by attorneys representing the accused doctors.
Fortunately, most plaintiffs’ malpractice attorneys do not charge for initial office consultations. Gather copies of all your treatment records, medical bills, and receipts for prescriptions, medical aids, etc. You have a legal right to copies of these documents from your treating doctor, hospital, and any other medical providers. Bring all your documentation to your meeting with the attorney.
How Much is Your Injury Claim Worth?
Find out now with a FREE case review from an attorney…
Visitor Questions on Hospital Malpractice
Search for a Previously Answered Question
I’m wondering if I can sue my school health services if they refused to tell me that I had a form of sexually transmitted disease. I had the STD for a couple of months without knowing. I had gone to the school health office but they didn’t contact me when the results came, so I... Read More.
My 3 year old daughter became very sick out of nowhere. After 2 days of fever, vomiting and barely keeping any fluids down, and not eating any food, I took her to her pediatrician. He looked at the usual throat, ears, nose, and did a throat culture. He sent her home and told me to... Read More.
I was playing in the snow with my kids and I slipped on the hill that we were playing on. I landed on my bottom and instantly had pain from my head to neck, side, all the way down my left side. After a couple of hours the pain went away. Well some 3-4 days... Read More.
Went to a stand alone ER at a Florida University hospital – brand new and supposed to be state of the art. I had increasing right side back pain that started on 1/17 then radiated to the right front starting 1/18. I asked my husband to take me to the ER because I was dying... Read More.
I’ve been suffering from a skin condition for almost a year now. It all started when I put sulfur soap and lye soap on my skin while showering (and leaving it on for a few minutes). After I did this I started itching really bad, and a few months after the itching began, puss-type welts... Read More.
In 2004 I started having signs of not being able to have bowel movements, and was going to my regular doctor. She finally referred me to a gastroenterologist in my area. I went in, he looked at me and asked “what brings you here.” I said, “my doctor determined I have irritable bowel disease and... Read More.
I had an MRI 8 months ago. The doctor and the lab failed to see that I had a torn meniscus. I was on an anti-inflammatory for 8 months, until I decided to go for a second opinion. The doctor giving the second opinion clearly saw the tear in my meniscus and I will have... Read More.
I am 47 years old and on disability. I have had back pain for over 20 yrs. At age 26 I was told by an OBGYN that I had endometriosis. She told me if I wanted the pain to go away that I would need a hysterectomy. Last week was what I believe will be... Read More.
I went to the ER after I fell off the top of my full sized van. I fell on my wrist then onto my head, neck and ribs. I couldn’t move my wrist the pain was so extreme. I also couldn’t move my neck without pain, my wrist was swollen, and my head right above... Read More.
In 7/2013 I went to the ER with a major infection from a bite on my shoulder. I had a fever of 101 and chills, and was given Bactrim & Keflex. In 09/2013 I had a repeat ER visit with bites on my ankles. I had the same symptoms of fever with chills, and was... Read More.
I had an ACDF cervical fusion done over 3yrs ago. The pain is now worse than ever and it’s affected my legs. I had a CT scan done a year ago and it came back abnormal. I just found out that the doctor didn’t take the spurs out and they’re compressing my spinal cord. A... Read More.
A veteran was recently married. He experienced penile discharge after an 18 month separation from wife. Upon reconciliation, the wife insisted that the discharge was not normal, and felt it was an STD. The wife eventually left her husband. She went to her gynecologist and had several tests performed, gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis, syphilis, HIV... Read More.
On August 31st I injured my Achilles tendon playing basketball. I believed I had torn it. I am a 21 year old, male, asian american student who (prior to the injury) engaged in athletic activity on a daily basis. Upon entering the USC Student Health Center no more than 5 days after my injury, the... Read More.
My orthopedic doctor x-rayed my knee in his office and said the results showed nothing. He said he could only see arthritis damage. He referred me to physical therapy which only contributed to more pain. The physical therapist said he could not go further with his treatment until I got an MRI. So, only then... Read More.
On March 1, 2012 I had cervical spine surgery done. I had 5 vertebrae fused and 2 steel plates placed within my neck. For the next 10 months when I went to my follow up appointments I brought to the doctor’s attention all the severe pain in my back and chest I was having. He... Read More.
I am 34 years old and have had serve pain in my right hip/leg for years. When I went to see my primary doctor they sent me for x-rays, a CAT scan, and an MRI. I was told nothing was wrong with me, so I just dealt with it. Four years later, I went to... Read More.
I had two surgeries to repair a broken ulnar bone in my arm. Each surgery the surgeon put a plate in to stabilize the bone. Each surgery resulted in a non-union of bone. I saw a second orthopedic surgeon for his opinion. He noticed that the elbow was dislocated, which caused misalignment of the ulnar... Read More.
I went to the ER several times for stomach pain. I was told that I had a urinary tract infection. I had a fever associated with the stomach pain and I was given pain medication for the unknown pain. I went back to the ER several times in a 4-month span only to be told... Read More.
My mom battled cancer in her left breast in 1984 and was under the care of an oncologist up until 1994. After 10 years she was given a clean bill of health and released from the oncologist’s care. In 2004 she was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast. Again she was referred to and... Read More.
My mother was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease over 15 years ago, but they have only now (within the past year) admitted it was a misdiagnosis. She has now been diagnosed as having medication induced Parkinson’s because the meds she was on were not needed! The medical records will prove a case that can’t... Read More.
I broke my hand and fractured my wrist at school. The same day I went to the hospital and got x-rays. The doctor said it was just swollen and I had a bad bruise. Three months later I went back to the doctor for a sinus infection and the doctor said, “By the way, your... Read More.
About 11 years ago my neurologist diagnosed me as having Early Onset Parkinson’s Disease. He sent me to a movement disorder specialist who was his friend to finalize the diagnosis. That was the end of my life as I knew it. I suffered depression, anger, nightmares, sleeplessness, resentment, fear of becoming a prisoner in my... Read More.
In January 2011 I fell and broke my elbow and wrist. I first went to urgent care and had x-rays done. They said the elbow was broken for sure but they weren’t sure about the wrist, it was swollen. They put a soft cast on it and put my arm in sling. I was sent... Read More.
In December 2006 I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. After a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), I was told I still had cancer. I had a total hysterectomy which has led to very low bowel function, severe hot flashes, extreme shock and menopause symptoms. The bowel is non-functional without medication and stimulation, and I take... Read More.
I slipped in my backyard two years ago in the winter time. I went to the doctor, had X-rays done and we thought it was just a sprain. Well I kept having pain in my knee and kept complaining. More X-rays were taken and the doctor thought it was just arthritis. This continued on for... Read More.
I fell through a step about 8 months ago and injured both knees. The right knee was throbbing and swollen so I went to my regular physician for about 2 weeks. I was prescribed oral steroids, and was already receiving back injections and NSAIDS pain medicine. Then I was referred to an orthopedist. I saw... Read More.
I discovered a man had been sleeping with my wife after taking advantage of her while she was very drunk and on anti-depressants. My wife and I were separated in different houses at the time. I saw the man at a convenience store and told him I did not want him near my wife and... Read More.
I’m 35 years old and recently went to the hospital because I had what I thought was a stroke. While at home my entire right side went numb, from the top of my head to my toes. I arrived at the hospital 1.5 hours after the first symptoms and was unable to move that side... Read More.
After a positive home pregnancy test result I was experiencing abdominal pain and slight vaginal bleeding. I called an OB-GYN and was given an appointment for the next business day. The next day, Saturday, I went to the emergency room with increasing pain and bleeding. After blood tests confirmed the positive pregnancy the hospital did... Read More.