When you are sick, hurting, or suffering from unexplainable symptoms, you want to trust in the ability of a healthcare provider to figure out what the cause of your symptoms is—make a diagnosis—and properly treat and cure the cause. At a minimum, you want to manage the symptoms. But what happens when the healthcare provider gets it wrong? If a healthcare provider fails to make a diagnosis at all, or makes a misdiagnosis, then irreversible injury can occur. A common question is whether a failure to make a proper diagnosis automatically means the healthcare provider committed medical malpractice? The short answer is no.
To prove a healthcare provider committed malpractice, a patient must show the following:
- The provider owed a duty of care to the patient. The patient must prove there was a provider-patient relationship between the professional making the diagnosis (or, failing to diagnose) and the patient. Providers only owe a duty to a patient if there is a provider-patient relationship.
- The provider was negligent. The patient must show that, in failing to make a diagnosis or making a misdiagnosis of the patient’s condition, the provider failed to fulfill his duty of care, to act as any reasonable healthcare provider in his shoes would act. (This failure to show the proper duty of care is known as negligence.)
- The patient was harmed by the provider’s negligence. To hold a provider accountable in a lawsuit, a patient must prove that the healthcare provider’s negligence caused harm to the patient. Without an injury caused by the provider’s failure to properly diagnose, there is no case.
The Importance of a Differential Diagnosis
Many medical malpractice cases, particularly those involving a misdiagnose claim, involve the doctor’s use of a differential diagnosis to diagnose a patient’s condition. A differential diagnosis is the process of narrowing down the possible causes of a patient’s symptoms until a diagnosis is reached. The doctor usually starts by determining the possible causes of the patient’s symptoms, usually by considering the most likely ones first. Sometimes doctors will also consider the most serious and potentially life threatening ones first. For example, a patient who shows up in the emergency room with chest pain may be having a heart attack, so the doctor may place a high priority on evaluating a potential heart attack and trying to rule that out first before evaluating other potential causes.
Once the doctor has an idea of the potential causes of the patient’s problems, the doctor takes steps to rule in or rule out the various potential causes. Medical tests, such as blood tests, x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans, are tests that doctors can use to rule certain conditions in or out. For example, a patient with a pounding headache of sudden onset could have a brain tumor, a brain aneurysm, or a more benign cause like a migraine. A doctor evaluating all the possible causes may order a CT scan to determine what is causing the problem. The CT scan may show a brain bleed, and the diagnosis of a brain aneurysm is then made.
Common Causes of Misdiagnosis
A number of different things may cause a doctor to misdiagnose a patient’s condition. The facts of every specific case have to be analyzed to determine if there was negligence. Some common causes of a doctor missing a diagnosis include:
- Failing to consider all possible causes of a patient’s symptoms
- Not taking a thorough medical history
- Not listening to the patient
- Not reviewing a patient’s prior medical records
- Not ordering the proper tests
- Not reviewing a patient’s test results
- Delay in receiving test results
- Receiving test results or records for a different patient
- Failure to consult with a specialist
Was the Failure to Properly Diagnose Negligent? Ask an Expert.
Often the hardest part of proving a diagnosis-related medical malpractice case is proving that the healthcare provider was negligent. Even when a healthcare provider is exercising great care and diligence, a failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis can occur. Different diseases and conditions share similar symptoms. Routine tests can be inconclusive. Doctors may even disagree about what tests should have been ordered or when a specialist should have been consulted. All these factors, and more, can hinder a provider in reaching the right diagnosis. But, for the misdiagnosis to be negligent, the provider must have done something (an act) or failed to do something (an omission) that was below the standard of care, which is the negligence standard in medical malpractice cases.
To determine if negligence has occurred when a patient is misdiagnosed, a proper, qualified medical expert must be consulted. Georgia law requires that an affidavit from an expert with appropriate knowledge of the healthcare provider’s field be filed along with any medical malpractice lawsuit, or the lawsuit will be thrown out by the court.
An expert determines if a medical professional failed in his or her duty of care by looking at the patient’s medical records and considering other relevant evidence, such as witness statements. After reviewing the relevant evidence, a qualified expert can usually determine whether the doctor or other medical provider was negligent in diagnosing a patient’s condition. Working with experts as soon as possible after discovering a failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis is crucial to protecting a patient’s right to compensation when harmed by a negligent failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis.
Was the Patient Harmed by the Failure to Diagnose or Misdiagnosis?
Fortunately, even when a misdiagnosis is the result of a provider’s negligence, a patient does not always suffer serious harm. For instance, if a patient quickly obtains a second opinion and is correctly diagnosed and treated, then the patient likely was not harmed enough to justify a malpractice lawsuit. But even in a situation where a patient suffers little or no harm from a failure to diagnose or a misdiagnosis, filing a complaint with the appropriate state licensing board may be appropriate in egregious situations to warn others of the provider’s negligent actions and to hold the provider accountable.
When a patient has suffered from a failure to diagnose or a misdiagnosis, the patient may miss the opportunity to stop a disease in its early stages, may undergo unnecessary procedures, or may die due to the failure to receive life-saving treatment. Though a malpractice lawsuit cannot turn back the clock and undo the harm caused by a provider’s negligence, it can provide the financial recovery you need to live with the lasting impacts caused by the provider’s acts or omissions. Having an experienced Georgia medical malpractice attorney with The Champion Firm evaluate your case as soon as possible is critical to help you receive the compensation you deserve.