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When is a Misdiagnosis Considered Medical Malpractice Negligence?

Legally Reviewed and Edited by: Terry Cochran

Anger, miscommunication, and grief often drive the desire to sue a medical professional or institution when someone you love is not getting better, or whose condition deteriorates, or the person dies. Misdiagnosis is often cited in a medical malpractice claim, but it is important to understand when a misdiagnosis is, in fact, medical malpractice. Experienced medical malpractice attorneys at our law firm are your best option to evaluate if your claim qualifies.

Proving Medical Malpractice

A misdiagnosis is not always a medical malpractice issue and is not automatically proof of medical negligence and poor standard of care. Many highly qualified physicians can and do make diagnostic errors even when exercising reasonable care.

When medical malpractice occurs it falls under negligence in civil law, and you have to prove several components for a medical malpractice case to be accepted, such as:

  • Duty of care – i.e. a doctor-patient relationship.
  • Breach of duty – the medical professional was negligent and did not provide care in a reasonably competent and skillful manner.
  • Clear and direct causality – the negligence caused the actual harm. Quantify the harm – additional medical and other costs and other economic and non-economic losses.

Types of Diagnostic Errors that may Lead to a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

  • Misdiagnosis – when the wrong diagnosis is assigned to the patient, for example, mistaking a heart attack in a woman for gastric discomfort. Diagnosing and treating a patient for cancer when it is not cancer is usually a serious misdiagnosis case.
  • Delayed diagnosis – when it takes a long time to get to the right diagnosis. Diseases present very differently in some patients, which can complicate the diagnostic process making this a very common problem.
  • Missed diagnosis – when they find no illness or injury but have missed a diagnosis. A doctor may think that a child is playing hooky when complaining of indeterminate discomforts with no obvious symptoms.
  • Failure to diagnose a related disease – many medical conditions go hand-in-hand (comorbidities) and diagnosing one should prompt you to check for high-risk comorbidities.
  • Failure to diagnose an unrelated disease – when one issue is diagnosed correctly but a second disease that is not related to the first is missed.
  • Failure to recognize complications – the patient is correctly diagnosed, but factors that can aggravate the condition are missed, or the patient already displays complications that are missed.
  • Differential diagnosis method – when doctors consider different possible causes of a patient’s illnesses before making a clear diagnosis. If they take too long to determine a cause and you suffer from a severe personal injury or death this is grounds for medical malpractice negligence.

Negligence in Diagnosing

If any of the diagnosis errors outlined in these scenarios occur, it is not automatically an issue of negligence. The doctor may have the right skills and qualifications and have exercised due diligence and extreme care and still have missed the diagnosis due to several factors. You would have to prove that he did not exercise reasonable care, by looking at his actions, investigations, looking into similar training procedures for physicians, and decision-making logic for arriving at the diagnosis.

As many diseases are very similar in presentation, after taking a history and examining the patient, a physician needs to process the potential differential diagnoses to arrive at a primary diagnosis. They may order diagnostic tests to rule out differential diagnoses or to prove the suspected diagnosis.

Negligence would include failure to list obvious potential diagnoses in the differential diagnosis list, misinterpreting diagnostic test results or failure to order the right tests, as well as failure to recognize the urgency of complications or to refer to appropriate specialist care if complexity demands it.

If, however, the results of diagnostic tests are incorrect, the doctor is not negligent nor liable, and the liability will then rest with the source of the mistake.

Your medical malpractice lawyer must access your medical records, hospital records, and laboratory maintenance records as well as get statements from relevant personnel if you suspect a medical error or an injury resulted while in your doctor’s or another health professional’s medical care.

Diagnostic Test Errors

Sometimes diagnostic errors occur due to inaccurate results for diagnostic tests, which may happen for several reasons:

  • Mislabelling of a sample.
  • Not providing critical information that would guide the reading of results.
  • Pre-diagnostic test medication not given.
  • Faulty diagnostic equipment, such as laboratory analyzers.
  • Misreading of results.
  • Missing important clues in diagnostic tests such as an x-ray or a histology slide.

How did the Misdiagnosis Harm the Patient?

Having to prove clear causality for harm is always the most challenging part of malpractice cases. The patient or his representatives must prove that the doctor’s misdiagnosis or delayed diagnoses were the cause of the harm the patient suffered.

If you see a doctor for example for flu symptoms, and they treat the flu but do not check for cancer, it does not mean the doctor can be sued for missing the cancer diagnosis – other doctors would not have diagnosed it in similar circumstances.

However, if the patient described clear symptoms that could indicate the possibility of cancer, and has risk factors in their medical history, and it was not considered nor any diagnostic tests done to rule it out, you may have a case.

While the doctor’s misdiagnosis did not cause cancer, a delay in diagnosis when there were clear signs may be actionable if starting earlier treatment would have changed the outcome of treatment. Only medical expert witnesses can testify to this kind of scenario.

Diagnosing a patient with cancer, on the other hand, (maybe based on the wrong test results), when they do not have cancer, could be construed as harm caused by a misdiagnosis as the patient would have undergone unnecessary treatment and suffered anguish. Depending on the responsibility for the wrong results, the doctor may not be liable.

How to File a Medical Malpractice Case in Michigan

Eileen Kroll is a senior partner at our law firm who can assist you with a professional evaluation of the facts of your case. She is a registered nurse, as well as a trial lawyer, with special insight into the issues in medical malpractice and how the courts will evaluate medical issues. Eileen and her team will fight hard to ensure your medical bills are paid and you receive the compensation you deserve for subpar health care.

If you are seeking a personal injury lawyer, you can contact Eileen for a free consultation at Cochran, Kroll & Associates, P.C. at 866-MICH-LAW.

Disclaimer : The information provided is general and not for legal advice. The blogs are not intended to provide legal counsel and no attorney-client relationship is created nor intended.

Sebastian graduated from a liberal arts ivy league college with a major in history and minors in economics and classical studies. While in college he worked as a medical trainer and has a special interest in sports injuries and their impact on student-athletes. In his spare time, he enjoys playing soccer and ice hockey and visiting museums.



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