Common Misdiagnoses of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung condition typically caused by an infection, resulting in inflammation of the lungs. Pneumonia is usually easily treated, especially when diagnosed in a timely fashion, but it can be more dangerous (even life-threatening) for very young and elderly patients, or people who have other debilitating health issues. Pneumonia can also present more serious complications if treatment is delayed, so it's important that the condition be recognized early so that a proper course of treatment can begin. In this article we'll look at the proper diagnosis procedure for pneumonia, some common misdiagnoses of the condition, and what you'll need to show in order to bring a viable medical malpractice case based on misdiagnosis of pneumonia.   

Proper Diagnosis Procedure for Pneumonia

It almost goes without saying, you should go to a doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms associated with pneumonia. Some of the most common symptoms include a cough, fever and chills. Patients often experience pain or aching in the muscles, and many patients also report feelings of fatigue.

Your physician will give you a physical exam, using a stethoscope to listen for cracking or rumbling sounds in your lungs. Chest X-rays are typically used to find out where the infection is located. Additionally, most doctors use blood tests to count your white blood cells and to detect either bacteria or viruses, since pneumonia is often caused by one of these organisms.

Misread Diagnosis of Pneumonia

It is possible to misread blood tests and X-rays, which means that the doctor may decide on the wrong course of treatment. Additionally, a doctor who fails to perform blood tests or X-rays at all, relying only on the symptoms, may easily misdiagnose pneumonia because there are various conditions that have some symptoms in common with pneumonia, such as the following:

Influenza (Flu). Like pneumonia, the symptoms of influenza include a cough, chills, and sometimes a fever. Headaches, muscle aches and fatigue are all common, as well. However, those with influenza tend to also have a sore throat and a runny nose, and many do not have a fever at all, yet sometimes pneumonia gets misdiagnosed as the flu. In fact, the flu often precedes pneumonia, so a doctor trying to treat a patient for the flu may be too late if the condition has already progressed into pneumonia. 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The condition known as COPD actually encompasses a few lung conditions that make it hard to breathe due to damage to the airways. Chronic asthmatic bronchitis and emphysema are the most common types of COPD. The symptoms include wheezing, a cough, and chest tightness. Those affected may seem short of breath too, and may have a history of smoking. Pneumonia and COPD have chest discomfort in common, but otherwise, the symptoms are not very similar. However, some doctors may assume that patients who smoke have COPD instead of pneumonia. 

Acute bronchitis. This condition is basically a sudden inflammation of the lung's airways. It often appears after a viral respiratory infection, and many of the symptoms may suggest pneumonia. For example, acute bronchitis causes a fever, fatigue and chest discomfort. A cough that produces mucus is also common. Pneumonia may be misdiagnosed as this condition unless the doctor performs a blood test and chest X-ray to get a closer look at the cause of the symptoms. 

Proving That Misdiagnosis Amounts to Medical Malpractice

In assessing most patients who present with a potential health problem, a doctor performs what’s called a differential diagnosis. This means making a list of possible medical conditions that could be behind the symptoms, conducting a series of tests, then ruling out different conditions that don’t match up to test results until a definitive diagnosis can be determined. So, let’s take the case of a patient who presents with potential symptoms of pneumonia, but the doctor fails to properly diagnose the condition, and sends the patient home, saying it’s just the flu.

In order to hold the doctor legally liable for medical malpractice, the patient (usually through his or her attorney and a retained medical expert witness) will show how the doctor deviated from the accepted medical standard of care in conducting the differential diagnosis -- first walking the jury through what a reasonably skilled physician would have done under similar circumstances, and then showing how the doctor’s chosen course of treatment in the instant case failed to meet that standard.        

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