When is a Misdiagnosis Medical Malpractice?
When people go to see a doctor, they go in assuming their doctor knows best and will be able to quickly and accurately identify what is causing their health problems. However, sometimes doctors make mistakes and a patient isn’t correctly diagnosed right away. But if a patient doesn’t get a correct diagnosis right away, it isn’t automatically a case of medical malpractice. So when does a misdiagnosis become a case of medical malpractice?
Since many different illnesses can have similar symptoms and sometimes symptoms begin to show at different times, doctors use a method known as differential diagnosis to diagnose patients. Differential diagnosis is the process of coming up with a list of possible diagnoses and ranking them in the order of the probability it is the case at hand. A doctor then narrows the possibilities down by doing things such as ordering tests, conducting more extensive exams, learning more about a patient’s medical history, or referring a patient to a specialist. As time goes by and symptoms change or start to show, they might have to make adjustments to their differential diagnosis list.
For a misdiagnosis to be considered medical malpractice, it has to be a misdiagnosis that a competent doctor working under similar circumstances would not have made. It would also be malpractice if a doctor included the correct diagnosis as part of the differential diagnosis process, but incorrectly eliminated it as a possibility or neglected to either order the proper tests or to refer the patient to a specialist who could have identified the problem.
A misdiagnosis also might be the result of faulty diagnostic equipment, errors in the laboratory, or test results being read incorrectly. In a situation like this, the doctor might not necessarily be liable, but the person who made the mistake, such as the lab technician, could be.
A misdiagnosis becomes medical malpractice if the misdiagnosis directly causes harm to a patient. A patient would have to prove the misdiagnosis prevented them from getting treatment in a timely manner, therefore allowing a condition to progress further than it should have, causing more serious health problems for the patient. A patient could also be incorrectly diagnosed with an illness and be given treatment based on that incorrect diagnosis, which could also cause harm to the patient. A good example of this would be if a person was incorrectly diagnosed with cancer and was given chemotherapy or radiation therapy based on that diagnosis.
Misdiagnoses are most likely to occur in emergency settings, where time is of the essence and there is less time to investigate many different possibilities. Heart attacks, pulmonary embolism, appendicitis, stroke, and meningitis are all frequently misdiagnosed in emergency rooms. But just because a harmful misdiagnosis happens in an emergency room instead of a normal doctor’s office doesn’t mean they are off the hook for damages. If you were diagnosed incorrectly in an emergency room, you should absolutely consult an attorney because liability for emergency first responders and emergency room doctors and nurses can get very complicated. Although emergency room doctors and nurses are held to the same malpractice rules as doctors, EMTs have a great deal of protection from malpractice suits.