Patients reasonably expect physicians to render the correct diagnosis for any serious medical condition they may have. Although in some cases a missed or delayed diagnosis may not lead to serious consequences or complications, the same is not true of cancer where a timely diagnosis can save a life.
Many cancers are treatable if diagnosed and treated early. A failure or a delay in diagnosing cancer in its early stages can lead to an advanced stage where treatment may not be effective or in which radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be necessary. Also, surgery may be required that results in permanent disfigurement and/or disability along with significant psychological trauma.
These medical errors may constitute medical malpractice, in which case the victims or their families should consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss their legal options.
There are a number of reasons why a health provider might misdiagnose, fail to diagnose or cause a delay in diagnosing cancer.
Reasons for Misdiagnosis
- Failure to screen patient for increased risk for certain types of cancer--age, family history, tobacco and heavy alcohol use
- Inadequate or incomplete physical examination
- Ignoring cancer warning signs
- Failure to follow up for a complaint--incessant cough indicative of lung or laryngeal cancer
- Failure to observe cancer in an X-ray, MRI or CT Scan
- Specimens that are misinterpreted, misread, or mishandled
- Cancerous tumor that is misgraded as to its aggressiveness
- Failure to refer a patient to specialist for certain complaints
- Cancerous tumor or lesion interpreted as benign
- A non-cancerous tumor interpreted as cancerous leading to unnecessary treatments or surgery
Standard of Care
A physician has a duty of care to their patients in which he or she must adhere to the same degree of care that a reasonably competent physician in the same area of practice or specialization in that medical community would possess. In other words, the physician is held to a standard as practiced by the average physician with an average degree of competence.
A claim for medical malpractice may be brought if another physician in the same area of practice concludes that the average physician would have properly and timely diagnosed the cancer, or would have referred the patient for additional tests or to a specialist.
The deviation from the standard of care must have caused the patient an injury that a timely or correct diagnosis would have prevented. For example, if the cancer had been diagnosed when the patient was treated by a physician months or years earlier, the patient’s treatment options and life expectancy may have changed as a result of the delay.
Consequences of a Missed Diagnosis
The effective treatment of cancer depends upon a timely diagnosis. It may be malpractice if a doctor treats an incessant cough with cough medicine and neglects to examine the patient’s throat or to request a biopsy which turns out to be laryngeal cancer. If a specialist determines that the average physician would have made the referral months ago and the subsequent removal of the patient’s cancerous larynx would not have been necessary, the victim may have a malpractice claim.
In cases of melanoma, or cancer of the skin, the condition can usually be cured if found at an early stage. If it is not detected, the cancerous cells can move into deeper layers of the skin and into the blood vessels or lymph channels and travel to other areas of the body. By this time, the cancer has metastasized and the patient’s survival rate is greatly diminished.
Removal of a cancerous tumor, organ or other body part, that could have been prevented if the cancer had been diagnosed in a timely manner, can create tragic consequences. In addition, improper diagnosis can create an increased likelihood of not surviving the disease.
If the condition was incorrectly diagnosed as cancer, the patient may have to endure painful and debilitating radiation and chemotherapy that may lead to other health problems.
The physician who failed to make the diagnosis or made it too late may be held liable for the omission or neglect. If a lab mishandled a specimen or misread the results of a biopsy, the staff and owners may be responsible as well.
Other staff or providers who should have recognized the signs of cancer and failed to do so may be found liable if their omission deviated from the average standard of care for their area of practice or specialty.
Steps to Take
Medical malpractice claims are complex and subject to time limits within which a lawsuit must be started. If you or someone you love has suffered from improper or untimely diagnosis of a medical condition, we want to hear your story. Our experienced accident attorneys will review the facts and assist you with your case from beginning to end. We know how to investigate and aggressively pursue misdiagnosis cases and we will fight for your rights.