Doctors Beware: Most Common Diagnostic Mistakes That Result In Lawsuits

Posted on: 5 February 2016

If you are a doctor, you (or your employers) pay a significant amount of money for malpractice insurance each year. You often hear of horrible lawsuits where the hospital must award millions to the plaintiff, but the "it could never happen to me" attitude is a dangerous one. Because diagnostic mistakes are one of the most common reasons for medical malpractice cases, you always need to be on your guard and be aware of the most common mistakes so you can diagnose patients with care to avoid an expensive slip up.

1. Diagnosing a condition that does not exist.

Unfortunately, something that looks like cancer may turn out not to be cancer, and the patient who received dangerous treatment could sue for the loss of health and the loss of security they had with such a serious diagnosis. Generally, when a patient comes to the doctor with symptoms that are usually associated with serious diseases, it's important to get a second opinion before settling on the diagnosis, especially if the condition is rare. The second opinion will help to protect you later, should the patient actually be disease free and sue, as it proves you provided a good standard of care and more than one professional was involved in the diagnostic procedure.

2. Switching patient records and diagnoses.

Another unfortunate diagnostic problem comes from clerical errors. Before consulting with any patient about a diagnosis, be sure the records, tests, imaging results, and signed consent forms all match, both with the patient profile and with the information stored in the computer system. It's unfortunate when the switching of records goes too far and a patient gets an abortion when they were never pregnant or is put under anesthesia for a surgery they do not need, while a patient with a genuine need for medical care is left untreated. 

3. "Wait and see" testing.

Even though headaches, chest pain, blurry vision, or aching muscles are common complaints that come across your desk on a daily basis at a medical clinic, "wait and see" can be a dangerous way to handle patient symptoms. For example, if a man who appears fit and healthy comes to your office complaining of stomach problems, and you decide it must be acid reflux without running a few more tests, you could be held responsible when that patient dies of perforated stomach ulcer a few days later after leaving your office with the instructions to "call if the pain gets worse." Even though stomach pain is a common complaint, and the majority of patients will have nothing wrong with them, your professional advice in life-threatening situations is the advice that matters most. 

4. Misdiagnosing a serious illness. 

Finally, misdiagnosing a serious illness can be a major problem for the hospital. For example, if a patient comes in with a series of symptoms including stomach pain and trouble digesting properly, you might run a few tests. You find nothing to be seriously wrong in the preliminary blood work, so you give a fiber supplement and tell the patient they have irritable bowel syndrome. Six months later, that same patient might be rushed to the emergency room with complications from ulcerative colitis or gallstone-induced pancreatitis. The patient could sue for malpractice because, had the condition been caught and properly diagnosed, the patient would not have needed risky surgery or expensive hospitalization.

As a doctor, it can be frustrating to always have lawsuits on the brain, but at the same time, using a measure of defensive practice as you work with your patients can save you millions of dollars. If you have a patient who is suing you for diagnostic problems, seek out an attorney with experience in medical malpractice cases, especially if you own your own practice. 


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