When you make an appointment to see a doctor, you're trusting him to provide an accurate diagnosis of your illness. However, doctors are far from infallible.

A new study published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety found that roughly 12 million adults seeking outpatient medical care are misdiagnosed each year. It's estimated that about half of these errors caused harm to the misdiagnosed patient—due to a delay in obtaining proper treatment or consequences from receiving unnecessary treatment.

Misdiagnosis as a form of medical malpractice

Common Misdiagnosed Conditions

Patients are often misdiagnosed when their symptoms overlap with other conditions. For example:

  • Heart attacks can be mistaken for indigestion or panic attacks if the patient doesn't have a past history of heart problems.
  • In a younger patient, a stroke may be mistaken for a simple migraine.
  • Colorectal cancer symptoms such as stomach pain, blood in the stool, and unexplained constipation or diarrhea overlap with signs of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis can cause the same breathing difficulties as lung cancer.
  • The fatigue and general weakness that can indicate leukemia may initially be mistaken for a fever.
  • A serious staph infection might be diagnosed as the flu.
  • Sleep disturbances, fatigue, and lack of interest in activities may seem like a textbook case of depression, but could actually be bipolar disorder.
  • Thyroid disorders have many symptoms that overlap with depression, anxiety, or other psychiatric conditions.

A patient who is misdiagnosed may obtain the correct diagnosis within a short timeframe thereby avoiding serious harm.  In these situations a malpractice claim is not viable because one element of the cause of action is missing, that is harm to the patient.  Other patients may find that the delays have seriously compromised their ability to recover.  In some instances, these patients can actually die from the delayed diagnosis.  If a patient is concerned the doctor is not properly diagnosing the condition, then they should promptly seek out a different care provider who is able to obtain the correct diagnosis. Unfortunately, even a short delay in obtaining the correct diagnosis can have serious consequences for someone who is already very ill.

Reasons for a Misdiagnosed Condition

Doctors can misdiagnose a patient for several reasons. The doctor may have failed to consult with the patient regarding his symptoms, misinterpreted lab results, or neglected to refer the patient to a specialist. A failure to provide adequate follow-up care can also lead to a patient receiving a misdiagnosis.

Patients with rare diseases have the highest rate of misdiagnosis, although a common disease presenting with rare symptoms can also be easily misdiagnosed. In these cases, extensive lab work and a referral to one or more specialists should be used to verify the correct diagnosis.

A misdiagnosis is sometimes referred to as a failure to diagnose, since the patient is being diagnosed with a condition that he does not actually have.

Proving Medical Malpractice

On its own, a misdiagnosis isn't enough for a successful malpractice claim. To win your case, you will need to prove that your care provider owed you a duty of care and that this duty was breached. You also need to have suffered actual and substantial harm because of the missed or undiagnosed condition.

To prove that your condition would have been properly diagnosed if you'd seen another care provider, you'll need expert testimony from medical professionals specializing in the treatment of your condition. A qualified attorney will help you find the experts you need in order to prepare a solid case.

Proving that you suffered harm due to a misdiagnosis can be difficult. For example, if a doctor misdiagnosed brain cancer as migraine headaches and the patient later died from his tumor, it wouldn't be malpractice if there was no acceptable treatment for this particular type of cancer. The doctor would have been negligent in failing to diagnose the patient, but there would be no direct harm caused by this negligence since the patient wouldn't have had a viable treatment option even with a proper diagnosis.

The Inland Empire Law Group has advocated for victims of medical malpractice, including those with misdiagnosed conditions that were being treated in the hospitals or other medical facilities in the Inland Empire. Please call us at (888) MY IE LAW if you believe you have been substantially harmed by a doctor due to a misdiagnosis or by some other act of medical negligence.

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