Misdiagnosis and Delayed Diagnosis

A large number of medical malpractice lawsuits stem from the misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of a medical condition, illness, or injury. When a doctor's diagnosis error leads to incorrect treatment, delayed treatment, or no treatment at all, a patient's condition can be made much worse, and they may even die. That being said, a mistake in diagnosis by itself is not enough to sustain a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Proving Medical Malpractice Based on Diagnostic Errors

The law does not hold doctors legally responsible for all diagnostic errors. Patients usually must prove three things to prevail in a medical malpractice lawsuit based on a wrong diagnosis:

  1. There was a patient-doctor relationship.
  2. The doctor was negligent in his/her duties.  Did not provide treatment in a reasonably skillful and competent manner.
  3. The doctor's negligence caused actual injury to the patient.

Much of medical malpractice cases hinge on either the doctor being negligent or the case in which the patient suffered an injury due to the doctor’s negligence.

Determining if the Doctor was Negligent

A misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis itself is not evidence of negligence. Even the most experienced doctors can and occasionally will make errors when diagnosing a patient.  The most important factor when determining if the doctor acted competently is evaluating what the doctor did or did not do while arriving at the diagnosis.  This involves identifying the “differential diagnosis” method the doctor utilized in the determination of treatment. 

Differential diagnosis is the process of weighing the probability of one disease versus that of other diseases possibly accounting for a patient's illness. After the initial evaluation of the patient, the doctor will create a list of diagnoses in order of probability.  The doctor will then determine the strength of each diagnosis through various methods:

  • further medical observations
  • asking detailed questions about the patients’ symptoms
  • checking the patients’ medical history
  • further testing
  • seeking a specialist 

Through this process several initial diagnoses can be ruled out, which means that eventually a single diagnosis will remain.  Often, after further investigation, the doctor may discover other information that will cause them to add to the differential diagnostic list.

Burden of Proof

Proceeding with a medical malpractice case based on diagnostic error, the burden of proof lies with the patient.  The patient must prove certain facts:

  • That a doctor in a similar specialty, under similar circumstances, would not have misdiagnosed the patient's illness or condition. 
  • The doctor did not include the correct diagnosis on the differential diagnosis list, and a reasonably skillful and competent doctor under similar circumstances would have.
  • The doctor included the correct diagnosis on the differential diagnosis list but failed to perform appropriate tests or seek opinions from specialists.

Errors Within the Diagnostic Tests

Sometimes a doctor fails to correctly diagnose a condition because they relied on inaccurate results from laboratory tests, radiology films, etc. This can happen in one of two ways:

1. The diagnostic equipment used to test was faulty.
2. Human error occurred:
  • the test samples were contaminated or mixed up
  • the technician used an improper procedure
  • the test results were read incorrectly
  • the technician or specialist missed something in an x-ray or pathology slide.

Although the doctor might not be liable for medical malpractice in this situation, another person might be -- such as the technician that misread the pathology slide. Again, the patient must prove that the error was the result of negligence.

Did the Misdiagnosis Harm the Patient?

The patient must also prove that the doctor's negligent misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis caused the patient's injury or condition to progress beyond where it normally would have, had the doctor made the correct diagnose in a timely manner and that this progression had a negative impact on the patient’s treatment.  Occasionally a patient can show harm even if their condition can still be treated.  In the rare case that a doctor diagnoses a patient with a condition or illness that the patient does not have, the patient may also be able to prove harm in the form of anxiety, stress, medical problems, and expenses due to unnecessary treatment.

What To Do Next

Have you been the victim of a medical misdiagnosis?  If you answered yes, know that there is a two-year statute of limitations on all personal injury claims, which medical malpractice falls under.  After the statute of limitation has expired any ability towards a claim will be lost. 

Contact our office today in Meridian, Idaho to schedule a free case evaluation with personal injury attorney Ron Shepherd and learn more about the claims process.