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Diagnosis Errors: A Common Cause for Medical Malpractice Claims

Mistakes made when diagnosing a patient at a hospital are among the leading reasons why patients or their families decide to take legal action (including filing a lawsuit) against hospitals, according to a recent study conducted by an insurance company that represents physicians nationwide.

The Doctors Company recently released its findings. The insurance company represents more than 78,000 physicians. The report is based on claims filed against "hospitalists" (physicians who work exclusively in hospitals) that were resolved between 2007 and 2014. During that time period, there were 464 closed claims.

By far, the two most common reasons people cited for deciding to take legal action against a hospitalist were diagnosis-related issues (36 percent of cases) and improper management of treatment (31 percent). Other common reasons cited by patients or their families for taking legal action against hospitalists were medication errors (11 percent) and delay of treatment (5 percent).

What types of mistakes are made when diagnosing patients?

In terms of diagnostic mistakes, patients or their families often cited two major reasons why they decided to take legal action against a hospital or a specific physician - incorrect diagnosis and delay in diagnosis.

Incorrect diagnosis of a serious medical condition occurs for many different reasons. Sometimes, a physician fails to take into account a patient's complete medical history. Other times, a health care provider might misread medical tests X-rays MRI's or CT scans. Lack of communication between physicians and other medical staff or patients themselves also often contributes to a misdiagnosis of a medical condition.

The Doctors Company report states that such problems often occur at hospitals because physicians working there "have limited access to patients' past medical histories" and must make "quick diagnosis" of "patients with serious conditions." Specifically, mistakes made during the initial assessment of a patient occurred in 35 percent of cases.

Delay of diagnosis at hospitals also often occurs. In one of the case examples cited in The Doctors Company report, the document describes a 50-year-old woman who came to an emergency room with fever, chills and pain in her neck. One doctor considered giving the woman an MRI but decided not to do so. Three days after being hospitalized, another doctor ordered an MRI and discovered that the woman had a cervical epidural abscess, which involves compression of the spinal cord. Surgery was immediately performed, but the woman became a quadriplegic.

What can patients do if doctors fail to diagnose an illness or diagnose an illness too late?

Attorney Jonathan C. Reiter of New York has prosecuted many malpractice cases involving incorrect or delayed diagnosis. The most important question is whether the incorrect or delayed diagnosis has irreparably harmed the patient. Sometimes a physician makes a mistake in diagnosis, but the patient gets better or the treatment of would be the same. This is frequently an issue in cancer cases, where the delay in diagnosis might not be long enough to change the patient's outcome or treatment.

In other cases however, the delay in diagnosis allows the patient's cancer, infection or other illness to progress to the point that the patient's chances of survival have been seriously diminished or destroyed entirely. Sometimes a patient may have an injury or illness that could be cured with prompt treatment or surgery, but the delay in diagnosis and treatment results in a catastrophic outcome that could have been avoided. Those unfortunate scenarios are the basis for medical malpractice cases and may result in substantial damage awards to the patient or the patient's family in the case of wrongful death.

If you have a question about a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, contact the Law Firm of Jonathan C. Reiter, PLLC, and we will explain all the legal options available to you. Call (866) 324-9211 and schedule your free case evaluation. Our offices are located in the Empire State Building in Manhattan as well as in the Bronx.

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