If a doctor fails to make an accurate and timely diagnosis of a harmful medical condition, patients may pursue a legal remedy by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. One key question in these kinds of cases is whether the doctor breached the applicable "medical standard of care" under the circumstances. In other words, would a similarly-trained doctor in the same medical community have spotted the health problem (or identified it within a shorter period of time)? In the sections that follow, we’ll discuss some common misdiagnosis and wrong diagnosis scenarios, and illustrate how a medical malpractice misdiagnosis case might proceed.
Common Types of Misdiagnosis
While there are as many potential misdiagnosis scenarios as there are diseases and other health problems, some of the most common types of misdiagnosis are:
- asthma (may be misdiagnoses as recurring bronchitis)
- cancer (misdiagnosis can lead to painful, debilitating and unnecessary treatment like chemotherapy and radiation)
- heart attack (can be mistaken for indigestion, panic attack, or other issue)
- lymph node inflammation (can be mistaken for appendicitis)
- staph infection (may be misdiagnosed as common flu)
- stroke (may be dismissed as migraine or other comparatively minor issue, especially in younger patients)
Typically a misdiagnosis case involves either a delayed diagnosis or mismanagement of diagnostic testing. Misdiagnosis may also involve:
- failure to screen for a particular medical condition
- failure to refer a patient to a specialist
- misinterpretation of lab test results
- failure to properly consult with the patient as to his or her symptoms, and
- failure to properly follow up and investigate potential causes of symptoms that are reported.
Medical Malpractice Lawsuits for Misdiagnosis
When it comes to lawsuits over misdiagnosis, plaintiffs need to follow the same steps for proving medical malpractice as in any other kind of case. It must be shown that, in failing to accurately diagnose a harmful health condition, the doctor failed to demonstrate the level of skill that a similarly-trained and experienced doctor would have shown under the circumstances. It must also be shown that the doctor’s provision of sub-standard care led to harm to the patient.
Who can be sued? In most cases, only the primary physician (your doctor) can be sued for misdiagnosis. In rare cases, other health care professionals may also be liable if their negligence caused or contributed to the patient’s harm -- including nurses, lab techs, and any specialists who may have seen the patient. The hospital or health care facility where the doctor practices usually cannot be sued for harm caused by misdiagnosis. That’s because most doctors are independent contractors, not employees of the hospital, so the facility can’t be held legally responsible for the doctor’s negligence.
Showing harm to the patient. It’s not enough to show that the doctor failed to make the right diagnosis. A medical malpractice case will only be successful if it’s shown that the misdiagnosis resulted in harm to the patient. Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis may cause harm to the patient in a variety of ways, including:
- exposing the patient to more aggressive treatment than would have been required if the disease or medical condition had been diagnosed earlier
- needlessly exposing the patient to harmful courses of treatment (such as radiation or chemotherapy)
- performing unnecessary surgical procedures (especially where scarring or disfigurement results)
- increased likelihood of complications, and
- increased likelihood of death.
Watch the Statute of Limitations in a Misdiagnosis Case
Finally, in any medical malpractice case -- in any type of lawsuit for that matter -- plaintiffs need to be mindful of time limits for going to court and getting the lawsuit process started. You need to file the initial document (the complaint) within a certain amount of time after you suffered the harm that led to the lawsuit. These deadlines are set by state laws (statutes), so they’re called “statutes of limitations.” In some jurisdictions, the statute of limitations may not begin to run until the discovery of the injury. For example, in California a patient has three years to file a medical malpractice lawsuit after the harm occurs, or one year after the harm is discovered (whichever comes first).