Failure to diagnose is the root of most malpractice lawsuits, study finds

When you think of medical errors that would lead a patient to sue their doctor for medical malpractice, you may think of errors like leaving behind surgical sponges, amputating the wrong leg or perhaps prescribing the wrong type of medicine. Although all of these medical errors are serious and no doubt constitute medical malpractice, according to a recent study they are not the most common cause of malpractice lawsuits.

The study looked analyzed medical malpractice lawsuits against primary care doctors in the United States, France, Canada and Australia. It was found that the most common reason that medical malpractice lawsuits were filed was because the physician failed to correctly diagnose the patient's condition. The study found that this happened in at least 26 and 63 percent of the claims, depending on the country.

To add further insult to injury, the study found that the most commonly disorders and illnesses that physicians misdiagnose are not trifling afflictions. According to researchers, adult diseases like cancer (especially lung, colon, breast or melanoma) and heart attacks as well as meningitis in children were the most commonly missed diseases. Unfortunately, the physician's failure to make a correct diagnosis was often fatal as a result, responsible for the patient's death in up to 48 percent of cases, according to the study.

Medication errors, while a serious and common medical error, only came in a distant second as a cause of medical malpractice claims. These errors were only responsible for six to twenty percent of claims, depending on country surveyed.

How to protect yourself

So why are physicians routinely getting the diagnosis wrong for serious diseases? The study found that many of the most commonly misdiagnosed diseases have symptoms that mimic other less serious disorders. For example, cancer can have many symptoms that are similar to the flu or a cold. Additionally, heart attacks are often identified incorrectly as anxiety disorders or panic attacks by physicians.

Because of this, it is important for you as the patient to take steps to mitigate the risk of being incorrectly diagnosed. Before speaking with your doctor, it is helpful to write down each symptom you have experienced and your family disease history, so you don't forget to mention them during the consultation. Also, be sure to write down specific information such as how often or long the symptoms last, how the symptoms feel (e.g. dull or sharp pain) and any home treatments that you have tried.

At the consultation, precisely communicate what you have recorded without offering any medical conclusions. Take notes (or ask for a copy of the doctor's notes) on what is said during the consultation. Once the physician has made a diagnosis, follow up with questions such as how the diagnosis was reached, whether there are other possible explanations for your symptoms and why those explanations were ruled out in your diagnosis.

If you have any reason to question your diagnosis, don't be afraid to seek a second or third opinion.

Consult an attorney

If you or a loved one have received an incorrect diagnosis, it can lead to serious consequences. Even if you later receive a correct one, the delay can severely prejudice your chances of recovery. As a result, you may be entitled to damages under New York law. An experienced medical malpractice attorney can consider your situation and advise you of your right to compensation.