Is Misdiagnosis Medical Malpractice?

December 21, 2017
Legally Reviewed By Attorney Rand Spear, Esq.

When most people think about medical mistakes, they imagine a doctor giving a patient the wrong type of medication, or perhaps operating on the wrong part of the body. However, medical mistakes can occur in a variety of ways. In fact, diagnosing a patient with the wrong type of illness can also rise to the level of medical malpractice. Additionally, missing a medical problem entirely — which is sometimes referred to as a delayed diagnosis — can also constitute medical malpractice.

How Big of a Problem Is Misdiagnosis?

When you go to the doctor, you have the right to expect that your doctor will adhere to the appropriate duty of care. Your doctor should listen to you and perform the necessary tests for properly diagnosing your illness — or ruling out an illness in the event you don’t have an issue that requires treatment.

Unfortunately, this does not always happen. In fact, misdiagnosis occurs much more often than most people realize. According to the journal BMJ Quality & Safety, 12 million Americans are misdiagnosed by doctors every year. A CBS News report states, “This figure amounts to 1 out of 20 adult patients, and researchers say in half of those cases, the misdiagnosis has the potential to result in severe harm.” One doctor interviewed in the report said that this figure represents about five percent of all outpatient procedures. As he put it, a 95 percent score might be good on a history test in school, “but it’s not good enough for medicine, especially when lives are at stake.”

What Is Misdiagnosis?

Misdiagnosis encompasses a range of medical mistakes. For example, misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor’s error leads to incorrect treatment. Misdiagnosis can also happen when a doctor fails to give any treatment at all. Finally, misdiagnosis can also include errors in which a doctor mistakes a patient’s condition for one illness, when they actually have another type of illness. For example, a doctor who diagnoses a patient with migraine headaches when the patient actually has a brain tumor that requires immediate treatment. Patients have also been diagnosed with a pulled muscle and sent home when they’re really suffering from a heart attack.

How to Prove Medical Malpractice in Misdiagnosis Cases

To bring a medical malpractice claim in a case involving a misdiagnosis, a patient must be able to prove four key elements:

The existence of a doctor-patient relationship.

An injury occurred.

The doctor acted negligently.

The doctor’s negligence caused the patient’s injury.

In the majority of cases, it’s the third and fourth elements that are the most difficult to prove. A patient must be able to show that a doctor deviated from the standard of care followed by other doctors in the same practice area within the same geographical area.

In some cases, a defective test or faulty testing procedures results in a misdiagnosis. For example, a lab may produce an inaccurate blood test, which a doctor relies on to make a diagnosis. On other cases, an x-ray or other image shows a problem that later turns out to be benign. In these types of cases, the patient may not be able to file a claim against the doctor who made the diagnosis, but the patient may still have a case against the lab, the lab technician, a radiologist, or some other party or professional involved in the testing process.

Common Misdiagnosis Cases

Each case is different, and every case has its own unique facts and circumstances. However, there are some types of misdiagnoses that seem to occur more frequently than others. Furthermore, some kinds of misdiagnosis mistakes are more egregious than others because they tend to result in serious harm to the patient. In the most devastating cases, a patient dies due to a doctor’s misdiagnosis mistakes.

Common misdiagnosis cases include:

Cancer When a doctor misses cancer, the patient may miss out on an opportunity to obtain early treatment before the cancer spreads.

Staph Infections Staph infections are sometimes misdiagnosed as influenza. Left untreated, these infections can be life-threatening.

Heart Attack Heart attacks are often misdiagnosed as muscle strains, indigestion, panic attacks, or other less serious illnesses. This type of misdiagnosis is especially common in young people, as doctors assume someone who is young and seemingly healthy isn’t suffering a heart attack.

Stroke Strokes can be misdiagnosed as headaches, tiredness, or muscle problems. As with heart attacks, younger patients are more likely to be misdiagnosed with a less serious issue when they are really experiencing a potentially life-threatening stroke.

Because the time limits for filing a medical malpractice claim are typically quite short, it’s important for individuals who believe they are a victim of a medical mistake to speak with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer as soon as possible. If you miss the deadline to file a claim, you may be forever barred from obtaining the compensation you deserve.