Contrary to popular intuition, surgical errors are not the basis for the majority of medical malpractice lawsuits, but in fact the leading causes of malpractice lawsuits are diagnostic issues. There are several diagnostic issues such as misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, or failure to diagnose. Diagnosis is key to knowing which treatment or procedure a patient needs, and so when there is a failure to accurately diagnose a patient, death commonly results. There are generally three types of problems with diagnosis and each can result in severe injury and/or death. Misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor diagnoses the patient with the wrong disease. For example, a patient arrives in a hospital with gastric distress and is diagnosed with a stomach illness rather than a heart attack. Delayed diagnosis is when a doctor gets the right diagnosis, but due to some error or other event is not able to “catch” the disease in time. Finally, there is missed diagnosis. In cases of missed diagnosis, a patient is examined by a doctor and the doctor finds no serious problem. As a result, the patient leaves thinking there is nothing wrong but later finds that there was a latent illness that the doctor missed.
The most common result for a missed diagnosis is death according to a comprehensive study of medical malpractice journals. Surprisingly some of the most commonly missed diagnoses are cancer and heart attacks. Most heart attacks are not the dramatic chest-clinching events Hollywood makes them out to be, but can be just some chest pain. Cancer is the also commonly missed diagnosed, and according to some studies this is due to doctors not adequately adhering to cancer screening guidelines. What causes such oversight in medical care? Often times it can be fatigue, lack of persistence, carelessness, etc. Also, sometimes diseases can have many overlapping symptoms, which then need to be ruled out. This can be time consuming and in an area where every minute counts, it could be quite risky and costly.
Although medical jargon and diagnosis can seem overwhelming for the average patient, it is important for patients to be proactive in order to protect themselves from such errors. First, demand from your doctor more tests if the doctor says he or she has found nothing wrong. Often times, a simple test such as an ultrasound may be all that is necessary to find something which is quite life threatening. Secondly, ask your doctor about the alternatives in his or her diagnosis. He or she may assume it is just mild chest pain, but it may also be something more serious. When it comes to your health, being thorough and detailed oriented is important. Thirdly, do not assume the old adage “No news is good news.” A Harvard study showed that up to a third of physicians do not notify patients of abnormal test results. Finally, doctors fail to adequately consult one another, particularly doctors in shifts at a hospital. When doctors change shifts, not all the relevant information and test data is transferred to the new doctor, leading to significant errors in diagnosis. As a result, family members should be proactive in engaging doctors in order to ensure protection for their loved ones.
It is important to take an active role in one’s health. Leaving yourself in the hands of doctors who have hundreds of patients and who may be tired is not a good strategy to maintaining good health. It is not worth being passive, missed diagnoses kill.