Incorrect and delayed diagnoses are shockingly common. More than half of all patients will receive a misdiagnosis at some point in their lives, according to findings from the US Institute of Medicine. Today, millions of patients are receiving treatments for the wrong conditions, incurring unnecessary medical expenses and suffering for no good reason. In many cases, these patients have become the unwitting victims of failure to diagnose medical malpractice, a doctor’s negligent error.
Medical Misdiagnosis Lawsuits
Most serious conditions are progressive in nature, becoming worse with the passage of time. Receiving a correct diagnosis – as early as possible – can make the difference between life and death. To provide true benefits, a doctor’s diagnosis must be both correct and timely. But every year, millions of patients suffer needlessly due to medical misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis.
In developed countries, at least 15% of all patients receive an incorrect diagnosis each year. Other estimates place the true incidence of misdiagnosis even higher. In a study that compared clinical diagnoses with postmortem investigations, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that a shocking 26% of deceased patients had received a misdiagnosis.
Between 40,000 and 80,000 people die every year, as debilitating diseases like cancer progress unchecked – missed by physicians who are often more focused on generating revenue than caring for people adequately. Others are left to wonder, their worrying symptoms dismissed as nothing more than the effect of stress or fatigue.
As in all areas of healthcare, doctors are required to uphold accepted medical standards in reaching a diagnosis. A technique called differential diagnosis is the gold standard. After analyzing a patient’s medical history, symptoms and test results, physicians create a list of every possible diagnosis that could explain the data. By ordering additional diagnostic tests, less-probable conditions can be eliminated from the list when they prove inconsistent with new information.
Whittling down the list eventually leads to the most probable diagnosis, along with viable treatment options. In practice, diagnosing medical conditions is more difficult. Many severe disorders, including nearly every cancer, can result in “non-specific” symptoms, ones that could be caused by numerous different diseases. Ordering the right tests – at the right time – is crucial, but all too often, doctors allow medical negligence to creep into their diagnostic calculations:
- failing to order indicated tests
- using outmoded or inappropriate diagnostic tests
- failing to act on testing results
- failing to update a differential diagnosis with new information
- failing to include a probable diagnosis in the differential diagnosis
When these errors in diagnosis lead to patient harm, further injury or death, affected individuals have the right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Root Causes Of Misdiagnosis
Misdiagnosis is a massive problem, but one that receives relatively little publicity. Evan Falchuk, a nationally-recognized advocate for diagnostic accuracy, calls misdiagnosis a “public health crisis.” In his exhaustive report on “The Misdiagnosis Epidemic,” Falchuk identified four root causes that make incorrect diagnoses possible, despite recent high-tech advances in the diagnostic methods available to doctors.
1. Fragmented Healthcare Systems
Throughout the developed world, providing health care has become increasingly complex. One patient can easily visit multiple specialists, all of whom are ordering different tests and creating separate medical records. Coordination and open communication among these disparate players is key.
In the current system, Falchuk says, “the odds of getting the right diagnosis and right treatment
[…] are stacked against the patient.” Rather than working together, doctors work too often in isolation, without the context necessary to properly diagnose a patient.
2. Overconfident Doctors
Human error is central to the misdiagnosis problem, but few physicians truly question the validity of their decisions. In his pioneering work on the subject, diagnosis expert Mark L. Graber argues that incorrect diagnoses are often the result of common cognitive errors, lapses or biases in a doctor’s thought process:
- gaps in data-gathering
- failing to obtain complete and correct information from patients
- overlooking significant information
- overvaluing insignificant details
- failing to synthesize all of the data
To reach an accurate diagnosis, doctors have to approach a patient’s symptoms, test results and risk factors from every possible angle. No possible medical condition – especially rare or little-known diseases – can be ruled out before examination.
Once a diagnosis has been made, and treatment initiated, it can be extremely difficult for physicians to turn back the hands of time and reevaluate their initial assumptions.
3. Over-Reliance On Data
Paradoxically, another root cause of misdiagnosis errors could be an unfailing faith in data. Doctors are trained to reach diagnostic decisions using solely statistically-proven evidence, according to Jerome Groopman MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. This reliance on statistics – which has been termed “evidence-based medicine” – can blind physicians to the patient in front of them.
As Groopman writes, “today’s rigid reliance on evidence-based medicine risks having the doctor choose care passively, solely by the numbers. Statistics cannot substitute for the human being before you; statistics embody averages, not individuals.”
4. Lack Of Time
Healthcare is a business, and like all businesses, doctor’s offices and hospitals have been forced to embrace efficiency – often at the expense of in-depth care. Data from the US government shows that most doctors only spend between 10 and 15 minutes with each patient. At some hospitals, physicians are required to visit with a new patient every 11 minutes, Kaiser Health News reports. That’s less time to develop the doctor-patient relationship, a critical component of quality healthcare, and patients are left fighting against the clock to communicate all of their symptoms and concerns.
While the Affordable Care Act has provided health care to numerous deserving Americans, one of the law’s foreseeable consequences has made this problem even worse. Doctor’s offices have been flooded with more than 13 million new patients, placing additional strain on physician schedules.
Can You Sue For Misdiagnosis?
In fact, misdiagnosis is the leading allegation in medical malpractice lawsuits, according to Diederich Healthcare. Up to 1 in 3 medical malpractice settlements are reached over allegations of misdiagnosis, more than any other form of medical negligence. Our NYC medical malpractice lawyers can help you build your case.