When a Wrong Diagnosis Counts as Medical Malpractice

When your doctor misdiagnoses what’s wrong, the results can be devastating. Learn about medical diagnosis malpractice and how to pursue compensation.

Misdiagnosis is the number one reason for malpractice lawsuits, and a leading cause of patient deaths.

Thousands of patients in the United States are the victims of wrong, missed, or delayed diagnosis every year. ¹

As many as one out of every five patients seeking a second opinion at a renowned medical center are found to have been incorrectly diagnosed the first time around.

Even more disturbing is the number of incorrectly diagnosed patients who are probably never referred for a second opinion. ²

Patients and their families pay the price for medical misdiagnosis. If you or a loved one are the victims of medical malpractice, you have the right to pursue compensation.

What Causes Medical Misdiagnosis?

Each year 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.

Most of the time, wrongful diagnoses occur because of medical providers who:

  • 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

Sometimes a serious misdiagnosis is caused by the medical lab or radiology center incorrectly performing the test or interpreting the results. The incorrect test results are then given to the doctor who ordered the test.

How a Differential Diagnosis is Made

Some serious illnesses have the same symptoms as a common illness that isn’t life-threatening. Especially at an early stage, many dangerous conditions are very difficult to diagnose.

For example, gas and stomach bloating in a woman are usually caused by indigestion, but it can also be symptomatic of potentially lethal ovarian cancer. 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.” First, the doctor creates a list of possible illnesses 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. The reluctance might be due to the doctor’s arrogance or laziness, or because the patient’s insurance company won’t pay for all the tests.

Sophisticated diagnostic tools, such as MRIs, CT scans, and PET scans are very expensive tests that aren’t available in every hospital. In communities with fewer services and patients who can’t afford high co-pays, it makes sense for doctors to hold off ordering expensive tests until the need is clear.

Because each patient’s situation is different, not every wrong diagnosis is automatically medical malpractice. Doctors are expected to follow established standards of medical care, but the standards can change with the circumstances.

Taking Charge of Your Health

Many of us are raised to look at doctors as the final authority when it comes to our health. We should be able to expect a correct diagnosis from any medical care provider, but mistakes do happen.

Be prepared to look out for yourself if you’re not completely comfortable with your care or treatment.

  • Ask questions: You have the right to ask the doctor what your symptoms can mean. Ask the doctor to explain tests, medicines, treatments, and anything else you may not understand. If something changes, pick up the phone. You don’t have to wait until the next scheduled appointment to ask questions.
  • Don’t hold back: Tell your medical provider everything about your health risks and your symptoms. You might feel shy or embarrassed to talk about your lifestyle or symptoms, but your doctor will not be shocked or judgmental. Doctors need all the relevant information to make a correct diagnosis.
  • Do your homework: There is plenty of good quality medical information in libraries and online. Check out your symptoms and treatment standards for your condition. Use the information to discuss your options with your doctor, not for self-treatment.
  • Trust your gut: Speak up if you are still experiencing symptoms, are feeling worse, or feel like you aren’t being taken seriously. Get a second opinion from a doctor in a different practice, or ask to see a specialist.

When Medical Providers Overlook the Diagnosis

An overlooked or missed diagnosis can mean the patient isn’t prescribed the medication or treatment needed to treat the illness successfully. As a result, the patient can needlessly suffer while the condition worsens, sometimes worsening to the point of catastrophic disability or death.

Case Summary: $44 Million Verdict for Misdiagnosed Ear Infection

Bradley Metts was nine years old when his parent took him to the doctor for an ear infection. The boy’s bacterial ear infection was not properly diagnosed or treated.

The infection spread to Bradley’s brain, leaving him permanently paralyzed and “trapped in his body.” Bradley requires round-the-clock nursing care for the rest of his life, and his parents’ lives have been severely impacted.

Attorneys representing Bradley and his family filed lawsuits against the medical practice, the hospital, and the medical laboratory involved in the misdiagnosis.

The medical practice and hospital settled their claims under confidential agreements. The medical laboratory refused to settle, so the case went to trial.

The jury found Athens Medical laboratory liable, awarding Bradley and his family $44 million.

A  Missed Diagnosis Won’t Always Cause Harm

A missed 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.

The basis of a valid malpractice case for a missed diagnosis requires two elements:

  1. A verified illness or injury that was overlooked by a medical provider
  2. Measurable damages, which might include the loss of physical or mental function, loss of life, additional medical care expenses, loss of present or future income, and more

An illness or injury that is missed at first, then later diagnosed without lingering harm would not usually incur much in the way of damages.

Let’s say you were diagnosed with a sprained ankle. Your ankle is wrapped, and you’re sent home with crutches and pain medications.

A few days later, the doctor takes another X-ray and determines you have a small ankle fracture. The treatment is to keep the ankle wrapped, use the crutches, and continue with your pain medication as needed.

The first diagnoses missed the fracture, but your treatment would have been the same even if the fracture had been found right away. In this situation, there’s no measurable damage caused by the missed diagnosis.

Misdiagnosis: When the Doctor Gets it Wrong

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, sometimes life-threatening symptoms.

Case Summary:  $4 Million Awarded to Widow

Terry Hallmark went to the emergency room complaining of nausea, chest pains, and shortness of breath.

Despite the symptom of chest pains, the emergency room doctor Charles Shipman never evaluated Terry Hallmark for heart issues during the hours Hallmark was in the emergency department.

Dr. Shipman diagnosed Hallmark with gastrointestinal problems and sent him home. Two days later, 40-year-old Terry Hallmark fell dead from a heart attack.

The autopsy revealed severe blockages in three of Mr. Hallmark’s main heart arteries, with one completely blocked.

The attorney hired by Donna Hallmark filed a lawsuit against the emergency room physician for malpractice. The attorney argued that Dr. Shipman committed malpractice for failing to meet the standard of care for patients with heart attack symptoms.

The jury agreed, awarding Terry Hallmark’s widow $4 million in compensation.The verdict was upheld on appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

Delaying a Diagnosis Can be Deadly

A delayed diagnosis occurs when a doctor fails to recognize symptoms in time. As a result, the patient’s condition worsens.

In some cases, 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.

Case Summary: $2.7 Million Award for Radiology Misdiagnosis

Gail Ingram had a test in September 2012 that showed a suspicious nodule at the base of her lung on at least nine of the images taken.

The cancerous nodule was overlooked by Dr. Blanco, the radiologist who reviewed the imaging test results. Dr. Blanco told Ms. Ingram that she had pancreas inflammation.

Ms. Ingram was back at the medical center 19 months later, complaining of pain. Further testing showed the lung cancer had quadrupled in size and spread. Gail Ingram was dead from lung cancer two months later.

Attorneys for Ms. Ingram’s husband filed a malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Blanco. At trial, medical experts testified that Ms. Ingram would not be dead but for the misdiagnosis.

She would have had up to an 88 percent chance of survival if cancer were properly diagnosed and promptly treated.

The jury agreed, awarding $2.7 million to Gail Ingram’s family.

When to Hire an Attorney

You won’t get far trying to handle a medical malpractice claim on your own.

Doctors, hospitals, and diagnostic facilities pay thousands of dollars each year for malpractice insurance. Malpractice insurance companies are huge corporations with armies of attorneys and medical experts ready to fight claimants like you.

Fortunately, you don’t have to fight alone. You can hire an experienced personal injury attorney, sometimes called a trial lawyer, to handle your malpractice claim.

High-dollar malpractice cases can result in a settlement or jury verdict worth hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars. You’ll want an attorney who can advance the funds needed to cover the cost of court fees, medical experts, special accountants, and more.

Don’t Risk Losing Everything

Most attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation, and you can talk to as many attorneys as you wish.

Just don’t take too long to decide. Each state has a statute of limitations, meaning a deadline for filing malpractice lawsuits. If you miss the deadline, you lose your chance to pursue compensation.

Skilled malpractice attorneys represent clients on a contingency fee basis. In other words, the attorney’s fees aren’t paid unless your case settled or wins a verdict in court.

There’s too much at stake to wait. It costs nothing to find out what a skilled attorney can do for you.

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Medical Misdiagnosis Questions & Answers