Misread Pap Smears Delay Cancer Diagnosis: An Illustration of Medical Malpractice

Imagine getting diagnosed with advanced stage cervical cancer just two months after giving birth to a beautiful daughter. With a five-year history of normal pap smears, tests that look for abnormal cells that indicate the development of cancer, that diagnosis would be confusing as well as devastating. That is exactly what happened to Jennifer Beiswenger of Pennsylvania, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in May 2011.

Was Jennifer a Victim of Medical Malpractice?

Jennifer is now suing the Washington Hospital and eight doctors for negligence, claiming  her pap smears were misread for five consecutive years, leading to the progression of a life-threatening disease. The circumstances of her case illustrate the components and complexities of a medical malpractice lawsuit.

In Washington, there are three ways medical malpractice can occur. This instance is an example of injury resulting from a failure to provide an accepted standard of care. The key words in that statute are “injury” and “standard of care.”

Cancer Is Best Caught as Early as Possible

First of all, in order to have a case for medical malpractice, there must be injury. In Jennifer’s case, this element is very clear as misdiagnosis of cancer is very serious. Cervical cancer is progressive and survival rates are much higher when the cancer is caught early. In the five years she claims her slides were misread, her condition worsened significantly. Fortunately, Jennifer responded to chemotherapy and radiation, both very harsh treatments. Her cancer is in remission, but she never should have faced the diagnosis and treatment of advanced cancer two months after the birth of her child when she was so diligent about getting her yearly screenings.

Was Negligence Involved?

That brings us to the breach of the standard of care. This is where this medical malpractice suit shows us the complexity of proving negligence and identifying the responsible parties.

In Jennifer’s case, two tests, one in 2003 and one in 2006, were reported as abnormal. Those test results were never acted upon, an oversight that implicates her gynecologist particularly considering her positive test for HPV, a virus known to increase the risk of cervical cancer, in 2006. No tests were done at that time.

The main focus of the lawsuit is the alleged misreading of four years of pap smear slides. The hospital’s pathologist, Dr. Richard Pataki, is accused of this negligence. In order to prove that negligence occurred, Jennifer’s attorney must demonstrate that a doctor of equal qualification would have caught the abnormal results earlier. The slides have been reviewed both by Dr. Pataki and his colleagues as well as by outside pathology experts and everyone seems to agree that the tests from 2007 to 2010 showed a progression from pre-cancerous cells to an invasive carcinoma.

Although it is evident that the slides show a progression, Jennifer’s attorney will have to prove that without knowledge of the outcome, a pathologist would still make the same conclusion. Dr. Patalik points out that hindsight is 20/20 and that, when you know the diagnosis, it is easy to find evidence of it.

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Medical malpractice suits are quite complex, and the negligence is not always on the part of your doctor. Doctors, technicians and hospitals can all be guilty of a breach in the standard of care. If you or a loved one has suffered due to a medical mistake or oversight, please contact us immediately. You may be eligible for compensation. We provide a free consultation during which we will discuss your legal options.