Some serious medical conditions are more prone to misdiagnosis than others. A medical misdiagnosis affects one out of every 20 American adults. A doctor’s failure to properly diagnose a serious condition is a leading reason for malpractice lawsuits. When such a mistake is made, precious time is lost as correct treatment is delayed. Too often this results in life-threatening consequences or permanent disability. Patients and their families are then left holding the bill and often have to fight for compensation for those mistakes with a medical malpractice lawyer.
Diagnosis Errors Can and Will Happen
1. Acute Infection or Sepsis
There has been a rise in deaths caused by sepsis. This life-threatening condition occurs when a bacterial infection enters the bloodstream from a localized infection that has not been recognized or treated properly. The immune system reacts by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream to fight the infection. Inflammatory responses are then triggered throughout the body. If the sepsis turns into septic shock, organ failure and a dramatic drop in blood pressure can occur.
2. Aortic dissection
A tear or weakness in the wall of the aorta can lead to an aortic dissection, which is a fatal condition. Almost one-third of patients who have suffered an aortic dissection were misdiagnosed initially. Symptoms of an aortic tear can present in many different ways ranging from shortness of breath, sudden chest or upper back pain, loss of consciousness or sudden severe abdominal pain. All these symptoms could indicate a variety of other serious health conditions. To rule out an aortic dissection, doctors need to use more-sensitive imaging techniques, like an MRA, CT scan or TEE, which are not always at the top of their lists for diagnostic procedures.
According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, up to 28 percent of cancers are misdiagnosed. For some types of cancer, the rate of misdiagnoses might rise as high as 44 percent. The most commonly misdiagnosed cancers are:
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Gynecological cancer
- Hematological cancer
- Melanoma (skin) cancer
Misdiagnoses of cancer often occur because patients have an incomplete medical history or the doctor has not received all the information needed. In some cases, the doctor might not have had adequate time to evaluate a patient.
4. Heart attack
Most heart attacks do not present themselves as what is seen on television where the patient suddenly grabs his or her chest and collapses. Doctors might not suspect that a patient who does not have the common risk factors for heart disease would be experiencing a heart attack. Common symptoms of a heart attack could be confused with other conditions like bronchitis, gallstones, gastritis, heartburn or a pulmonary embolism. A patient’s complaints could also be dismissed as effects of nervousness or stress. Women are especially at risk for misdiagnosis of a heart attack because only 30 percent claim to have chest pain during the cardiac event.
5. Heart disease
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four deaths in the United States is caused by heart disease. This condition can be misdiagnosed because of a lack of symptoms or symptoms that mimic many other conditions, including backache, cough, fatigue, indigestion, shortness of breath or vomiting. A patient could be easily misdiagnosed and told they are suffering from anxiety, influenza or gallstones.
6. Pulmonary embolism
There are more deaths each year from pulmonary embolism than deaths from car accidents, lung cancer, and AIDS combined. It is common for medical professionals to confuse this condition with anxiety or a heart attack. This blood clot in the lungs could cause unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain and sweating. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all.
Emergency room doctors might not immediately recognize that a patient is having a stroke. Complaints of dizziness or headache might be dismissed as a migraine or ear infection. Between 15,000 to 165,000 stroke cases are misdiagnosed each year. Patients under the age of 45 or who are women are at higher risk for misdiagnosis of this condition.
Patients Need to Be Proactive
When a doctor’s diagnosis does not seem right, questions should be asked. The doctor should be asked for a differential diagnosis, which is a list of other possible diagnoses based on test results and/or symptoms.
Whenever possible, a patient or his or her family should be proactive in seeking a correct prognosis if a scintilla of doubt exists. This could be the difference between life and death for the patient.