Patient Misdiagnosis: Is It Physician Negligence?

A failure to properly diagnose a patient can have deadly results. According to Bloomberg, family members of the first Ebola patient to die in the United States believe that delayed treatment may have compromised the patient’s chances for survival. While a few other patients treated for Ebola in the United States survived after being given an experimental medication, Thomas Eric Duncan was initially sent away from the hospital with antibiotics and by the time he was properly diagnosed, it was too late for the new drug. Duncan’s family believes the delay and the fact he did not receive the new drug were contributing factors to his death.

Ebola is a unique and unusual virus, but misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis is unfortunately much too common within this country. In many cases, an incorrect diagnosis that results in delayed treatment can result in a patient having a much worse prognosis or can even lead to the wrongful death of the patient.

According to Insurance News Net, approximately 31 percent of medical malpractice claims arising out of nonsurgical mistakes involve diagnostic errors. The percentages of diagnostic errors vary depending on the specialty of the physician involved.

For example, for claims made against family medicine practitioners, 37 percent of malpractice allegations were related to diagnostic problems. A total of 13 percent of orthopedic malpractice allegations arose from diagnosis errors. Internal medicine physicians had the largest rate of problems with accurate diagnosis, as 40 percent of malpractice claims made allegations of diagnostic error. For general surgery, 16 percent of the claims related to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, and nine percent of obstetrics claims arose due to diagnosis issues.

The data were based on information from the largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurance provider within the United States.

The high percentage of diagnostic problems confirms earlier data. The National Center for Policy Analysis published a report in 2013 indicating that there are approximately 40,500 fatalities annually as a result of diagnostic errors in the United States. This is equivalent to the number of people who die from breast cancer.

As early as 1994, a study conducted by Harvard University revealed that 14 percent of all adverse events were misdiagnosis errors. A full 75 percent of the diagnostic mistakes resulted from physician negligence.

Doctors are not expected to be perfect. However, they are expected to be reasonably competent based on their professional status. A doctor’s acts or omissions are compared with what a reasonable physician would have done under the same circumstances. If no reasonable physician would have suspected Ebola, for example, then the Ebola patient’s family would not be able to take legal action for wrongful death.

However, if a doctor with the same background and experience would not have made the diagnostic error, surviving family members of patients whose prognosis was affected can pursue a wrongful death claim. The plaintiffs will need to prove the negligence and resulting diagnostic error were a direct cause of the death. A wrongful death attorney can help make a malpractice claim.

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