How Dangerous is a Delayed Medical Diagnosis?
February 26, 2021
Medical diagnostic errors affect more than 12 million people in the United States each year, and about one-fourth of those patients suffer serious harm, according to a report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). These errors contribute to about 10 percent of patient deaths annually. Incorrect and delayed medical diagnoses are the primary reason for most medical malpractice claims. Patients who suffer harm because of a delayed medical diagnosis may have a basis for a lawsuit to recover damages.
What is a Delayed Medical Diagnosis?
According to the National Academy of Medicine, most people will experience at least one medical diagnostic error in their lifetime. There are three essential characteristics of a correct medical diagnosis:
- Communicating the explanation to patient
A delayed medical diagnosis is one type of diagnostic error. Even if a diagnosis is accurate, it is still capable of harming the patient if it is not delivered in a timely manner or explained to patients in language they can understand. Obtaining a timely and accurate diagnosis is the first step in regaining one’s health. Unfortunately, delayed diagnoses continue to persist throughout all health care settings, according to the National Academy of Medicine. In addition to a delay in appropriate treatment, patients may receive unnecessary or even harmful treatment that causes financial and psychological distress.
What is the Difference Between a Delay in Diagnosis and a Delay in Treatment?
According to the Joint Commission, a delay in diagnosis is a non-optimal interval of time between the onset of symptoms and the identification of the treatment needed. A delay in treatment occurs if the patient does not actually receive the laboratory test, physical therapy, or medication that has been prescribed. A delay in treatment may also occur if the patient does not receive a timely follow-up appointment. Both delays in diagnosis and treatment may result in the patient suffering harm or dying.
Can a Short Delay in Diagnosis Become Dangerous?
Many types of illnesses can worsen if a diagnosis is delayed; however, there are situations in which even a short delay can be dangerous, including the following medical problems:
- Heart attack
- Severe infection
According to one study published by the American Heart Association, nearly one in five patients suffering ischemic strokes were incorrectly diagnosed in the emergency room. Without prompt diagnosis, these patients fail to receive timely treatments that offer the best possibility for positive long-term outcomes. Also, the younger the patient, the more likely they are to receive a delayed medical diagnosis of stroke. This is particularly true in young children, for which stroke is rare but when it happens, it can be fatal when left untreated.
Why are Heart Attacks Misdiagnosed?
A short delay in diagnosing a heart attack may also be fatal. Muscles that control the cardiovascular system are also involved in digestion, and it is not uncommon for people suffering from acute acid reflux to feel as if they are having a heart attack. Blood tests and electrocardiograms are often necessary to accurately diagnose a heart event. Delaying these tests can have tragic results.
Galfand Berger LLP has had experience handling these types of cases, including an instance in which a man died of a heart attack shortly after visiting his doctor. Instead of ordering conclusive tests, the doctor told the man he was having indigestion; in fact, he was suffering from a cardiovascular condition that soon ended up being fatal. Galfand Berger LLP obtained a settlement of $800,000 for the man’s family because of the delayed diagnosis.
Heart attacks are more often misdiagnosed in women than men. Recent studies have shown that traditional medical protocols for diagnosing heart attacks are based on symptoms that men experience, including chest pain that radiates down the arm. Some women experience jaw, back, and arm pain instead, or milder chest discomfort that is unlike the crushing chest pain that men typically experience.
How Dangerous is a Delayed Diagnosis of Infection?
Some infections, including sepsis and spinal meningitis, can spread rapidly and cause permanent damage or death within hours. One study of 37 hospital emergency departments found that more than 10 percent of the patients did not receive a timely diagnosis of infection. These patients were twice as likely to die in the hospital compared to those who received an accurate diagnosis when they were admitted.
Galfand Berger LLP provides skilled representation to clients who have been harmed as a result of a delayed diagnosis of an infection. In one case, a client suffered bone fractures from a bad fall. The patient’s doctor who discharged him failed to recognize the symptoms of a major infection. Owing to the delay in diagnosis, the man developed major complications. Galfand Berger LLP achieved a settlement for the client totaling $1.3 million.
What Other Types of Diseases are Commonly Misdiagnosed?
Many times, the symptoms of one disease are quite similar to other, less serious medical conditions. Some of the most commonly misdiagnosed diseases and their symptoms include the following:
- Lyme disease. Caused by the bite of an infected deer tick, Lyme disease can produce symptoms similar to the flu, including shortness of breath, chest discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. If left untreated, chronic pain may result. A two-step antibody test is the only way to definitively diagnose Lyme disease.
- Parkinson’s disease. Patients with stiff muscles, tingling in the arms and hands, and trouble walking may think it is the result of a strenuous workout or just getting older, when in fact it is the start of a serious degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
- Multiple sclerosis. Muscle spasms, balance problems, and a lack of coordination may also be the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a progressive autoimmune disease.
- Fatigue, rash, and joint pain may indicate lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease. Doctors can accurately diagnose lupus by ordering specialized tests, including an anti-dsDNA test, antinuclear antibody (ANA) test, and lupus erythematosus cell tests.
When physicians fail to provide a timely and accurate diagnosis, patients often suffer because early treatment typically offers the best chances for recovery. In more serious cases, the results of a delayed diagnosis can be fatal.
Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP Advocate for Victims of a Delayed Medical Diagnosis
Most people receive at least one incorrect or delayed medical diagnosis during in their lifetime. The Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP help patients with problems involving diagnostic errors. To schedule a free consultation, call 800-222-8792 or contact us online. From our offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania, we proudly serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.