Cancer Diagnostic Errors

diagnostic errors

Diagnosis is one of the most important responsibilities performed by primary care physicians (PCPs) every day. When healthcare providers make diagnostic errors, the patient may be harmed by unnecessary treatment or delayed treatment. Because cancer spreads over time, patients who experience cancer diagnostic errors are potentially vulnerable to adverse health outcomes.

Causes of diagnostic errors

There are many reasons that diagnostic errors happen in primary care offices:

  • The number of patients seen day in and day out.
  • Symptoms often fit into more than one diagnosis. In some cases the common diagnosis for a set of symptoms is benign whereas the uncommon disease is serious/life-threatening.
  • Diagnosis often happens over time and across several office visits.
  • Wrong or delayed follow up testing.

What is a diagnostic error?

A diagnostic error has happened when a patient’s disease is missed completely or is delayed / wrong due to negligence. A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report ‘Improving Diagnosis in Health Care’ defines a diagnostic error as a “failure to establish an accurate and timely explanation of the patient’s health problem or communicate that explanation to the patient.”

For example, a patient who has colorectal cancer has a visit with a PCP where they describe symptoms that include blood in the stool and abdominal pain.

  • The diagnosis would be considered “missed” if no diagnosis is made after three primary care visits where patient described alarming symptoms.
  • The diagnosis would be considered “wrong” if they were misdiagnosed with hemorrhoids.
  • The diagnosis would be considered “delayed” if follow-tests were ordered to confirm the diagnosis but the laboratory fails to communicate test results.

A medical malpractice attorney understands that these scenarios often overlap in diagnostic error claims. All types of errors and every health care provider involved will be reviewed with the help of an expert witness to gain an understanding of how and why the error occurred, who was responsible for the error and what harm the diagnostic error caused to patient. In the absence of hard rules for diagnostic timeframes, the following encounters may be examined to understand whether a diagnostic error occurred:

  1. The care provided in the patient/provider visit including analysis of health and family health history, basic health exam and ordering tests and/or referring patient to specialist.
  2. How diagnostic tests were performed and the interpretation of test results.
  3. Follow-up with patient about test results over time.
  4. Communication of test results and symptoms with specialist.
  5. Patient behavior including showing up for tests and appointments scheduled with specialists.

If the care provided in any of the above steps falls beneath the standard of care expected of a qualified medical professional under similar circumstances then the provider may have acted negligently.

Elements in a cancer diagnostic error case

  1. The existence of a doctor/patient relationship.
  2. Negligent care.
  3. Negligent care was the cause of harm to the patient.
  4. Patient suffered damages such as pain and suffering and lost wages.

When a diagnostic error is not considered medical malpractice

Many unsatisfactory medical outcomes are not considered medical malpractice. Some examples where diagnostic errors may not be medical malpractice include:

  • The error happened for reasons outside of the medical provider’s control.
  • The diagnosis is obvious in hindsight but wasn’t obvious at the time of the initial office visits.
  • The delayed/wrong diagnosis does not cause harm to the patient.

The Seattle personal injury attorneys at Morrow Kidman Tinker Macey-Cushman, PLLC have years of experience representing families harmed by medical malpractice and other types of negligence. We seek justice for patients who have been harmed by preventable medical errors including birth injuries, hospital-acquired infections and wrongful death in Seattle and across Washington State. There are no fees or expenses to file a personal injury case as we only receive payment if we recover damages on your behalf. Do not delay; personal injury claims come with a Statute of Limitations, which means they must be filed within a certain time frame of the injury.

Call us now at (206) 752-4366 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation with one of our compassionate, experienced attorneys.