We want to believe that diagnosing a disease is straightforward and that physicians are infallible. Neither is true. Diagnosis is made through patient histories, symptoms and tests. Doctors start with a list of possibilities and then eliminate possible ailments until they are left with the most probable diagnosis.
Occasionally something in the process goes awry and a misdiagnosis results. How does misdiagnosis occur in modern medicine and what action is available to victims of it?
Washington Law Protects Both Patient and Physician
A misdiagnosis alone is not enough to file a malpractice suit. Even the most knowledgeable and attentive physician can misdiagnosis someone.
In other instances, however, negligence or malicious intent is the cause of misdiagnosis. In this case, Washington Law protects the victim of misdiagnosis, allowing the victim to file a malpractice suit against the physician or healthcare facility.
According to the Washington statute governing malpractice, RCW 7.70.030, one of these three things must be proved by substantial evidence for an act to be qualified as malpractice:
- That injury resulted from the failure of a health care provider to follow the accepted standard of care
- That a health care provider promised the patient or his or her representative that the injury suffered would not occur
- That injury resulted from health care to which the patient or his or her representative did not consent.
A malpractice suit based on misdiagnosis likely deals with one of the first two stipulations.
How to Prove Standard of Care was Violated
To prove that the accepted standard of care was violated during a misdiagnosis, a patient’s attorney must be able to show that a doctor in a similar specialty would not have made the same misdiagnosis. Diagnostic errors qualify for malpractice if the doctor:
- Did not include the correct diagnosis on the differential diagnosis list when another doctor would have
- Did include the correct diagnosis, but failed to properly investigate the possibility with tests and specialists’ opinions
Occasionally an incorrect diagnosis results from inaccurate test results due to faulty diagnostic equipment or human error. Human error can include:
- Contaminated samples
- Sample mix-up
- Improper procedure
- Incorrect interpretation of results
- Misread x-ray film
In such cases, the liability may not just fall on the doctor, but on the lab technician or facility.
Injury is Essential
A key component to malpractice cases is that an injury must have occurred as a direct result of the doctor’s actions. In the case of misdiagnosis, there are several ways patients may be harmed:
1. Receiving treatment for a disease that you do not have may cause injury.
For example, if you are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis you may receive ß-interferon treatment. The drug acts on the immune system, and side effects can include injection site disorders, flu-like symptoms, poor liver function, blood cell abnormalities, depression and seizures.
Or perhaps you are misdiagnosed with cancer and receive chemotherapy, a miserable ordeal to go through. These treatment options are worth it if you actually have the disease they are meant to treat. If you do not, they cause unnecessary and avoidable harm to your health and the quality of your life.
2. When you are misdiagnosed, you do not get treatment for the illness you actually do have.
Delayed or missed diagnosis can result in the progression of a serious disease, making it more difficult or even impossible to treat. The burden of proof here is to show that the disease progressed beyond where it normally would have if you had received the proper diagnosis earlier. It must also be shown that the progression of the disease had a negative impact on treatment or your prognosis.
3. Misdiagnosis can get very, very expensive.
Medical bills can skyrocket when you are chasing a diagnosis or when you are on the wrong bank-breaking treatment (those ß-interferon medications can run you $3,000 a month). If a misdiagnosis has a significant impact on your finances that could have been avoided had the doctor made the correct diagnosis, you may have a case for malpractice.
4. Emotional distress and psychological damage may be grounds to claim injury.
“I have bad news. You have cancer.” This can completely alter the way you think of the rest of your life. Fast-forward two months or maybe even two years. Hearing a fancy version of, “Just kidding,” can cause a huge emotional upheaval no matter how much of a relief if may be. The burden of proof for emotional damage, however, is quite heavy and can be difficult to hold up in court.
An Illustration of the Potential for Misdiagnosis:
You have a splitting headache, and the whole left side of your face starts to droop. Stroke is probably the first thing that comes to mind. That is certainly one possibility, but your doctor should know that it is not the only possibility. There are other illnesses that mimic the symptoms of stroke, and the differences can be identified through thorough patient histories, laboratory testing and imaging.
Mimics can include:
- Systemic infection
- Brain tumor
- Toxic-metabolic disturbances
On the other hand, sometimes strokes do not represent with characteristic symptoms. When this occurs, it is referred to as a stroke chameleon because symptoms can change during the diagnostic period to appear to mimic other disease. For example, most strokes manifest as a loss of function. In some rare cases, however, movement disorders appear including flailing limbs or uncontrollable spasms. Confused states, agitation, delirium, sensory complaints and cortical blindness are also uncommon signs of a stroke.
Misdiagnosis can thus occur either by seeing a stroke where none occurred or by missing a stroke where symptoms are unusual. Doctors must carefully collect patient histories and eliminate other possibilities through simple tests, such as a blood sugar test, before concluding that a stroke has occurred. Similarly, they must know when to include stroke on a list of potential diagnoses even when symptoms may not initially appear to be typical.
We Can Help You!
At Perey Law Group, our attorneys have considerable experience with medical malpractice claims. We will help you fulfill the burden of proof and will establish a strong case on your behalf. If you or a loved one has been injured due to misdiagnosis you may be eligible for compensation.
Please contact us immediately. Do not delay; there is a limited time during which you can file a suit. We provide a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys during which we will discuss your legal options.