Suing for a Diagnostic Error: When Do You Have a Claim for Medical Malpractice in Florida?

Jan 1, 2023 | Medical Malpractice

When you have an illness or injury, obtaining an accurate and timely diagnosis is the first step toward getting the treatment you need. Pathology is a fundamental element of medical practice, and all doctors should have the knowledge required to either (i) accurately diagnose a patient’s condition or (ii) recognize that a referral is necessary.

Yet, diagnostic errors are alarmingly common. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “[i]t’s estimated that more than 100,000 Americans die or are permanently disabled each year due to medical diagnoses that initially miss conditions or are wrong or delayed.” As a result, as the world-renowned medical university also notes, “[f]or a patient, a diagnostic error can mean the difference between life and death.”

Even when diagnostic errors do not result in death or permanent disability, they can still have significant and long-term consequences. These include health and financial consequences, as well as pain, suffering, and emotional trauma. For many patients who experience malpractice (or family members who see the consequences of a misdiagnosis), it can be difficult to trust any aspect of the medical establishment ever again. This can cause them to forego treatment, potentially resulting in further unnecessary complications and suffering.

Diagnostic Errors Constitute Medical Malpractice In Many Cases

For patients and families that are coping with the effects of diagnostic errors, speaking with a lawyer is important. Diagnostic errors constitute medical malpractice in many cases. If your doctor (or your loved one’s doctor) made a mistake that he or she could—and should—have avoided, Florida law entitles you to hold him or her (or his or her employer) accountable.

Common Diagnostic Errors (Including the “Big 3”)

Diagnostic errors are so common that Johns Hopkins Medicine has established a list of the “Big 3” diagnostic mistakes in medical practice. These mistakes account for “nearly 75 percent of all serious harms from diagnostic errors.” But, this still leaves more than 1 in 4 cases of misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, or failure to diagnose that involve other errors and conditions. As a result, the unfortunate reality is that all patients and families need to be concerned about the possibility of a diagnostic error causing them or their loved ones unnecessary—and potentially fatal—harm.

The ”Big 3” Diagnostic Errors

The “Big 3” are the most common diagnostic errors as determined by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine who analyzed “a large repository of malpractice insurance claims.” While the researchers note that the fact that such a small number of issues is responsible for the majority of diagnostic errors, “gives us both a place to start and real hope that the problem is fixable,” it is painfully clear that there is still much work to be done.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the three most common diagnostic errors—by far—are:

1. Misdiagnosis of Cancers (37.8 Percent of Diagnostic Errors)

Misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, and failure to diagnose patients’ cancers account for 37.8 percent of all diagnostic errors resulting in death or permanent disability. The following are the most-frequently misdiagnosed types of cancer:

  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer

Frequently, cancer misdiagnoses simply result from poor decision-making on the part of patients’ doctors. The researchers behind the “Big 3” study concluded that “failures of clinical judgment” are responsible for more than 85 percent of all misdiagnoses. This means that, in the vast majority of cases, patients’ cancers are going undiagnosed not because doctors lack the tools they need to provide an accurate diagnosis, but rather because doctors simply aren’t using the tools they have available.

There is no excuse for this mistake. In today’s world of modern medicine, doctors have everything they need to accurately diagnose patients who present with symptoms of cancer—especially common cancers like those listed above. If doctors take the time to identify and examine patients’ symptoms, if they order the necessary tests and scans, and if they take the necessary time to review patients’ test results (which could be as little as a couple of minutes), they should be able to provide an accurate diagnosis in the vast majority of cases.

Along with the cancers listed above, doctors frequently misdiagnose many other forms of cancer as well. Diagnostic errors that may constitute medical malpractice also include misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose, and delayed diagnosis of:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Uterine cancer

2. Misdiagnosis of Vascular Events (22.8 Percent of Diagnostic Errors)

Diagnostic errors involving vascular events account for nearly a quarter of all errors resulting in death or permanent disability. Even more so than cancers, vascular events are highly diagnosable conditions, as patients with these conditions typically present with acute symptoms that are related to a specific occurrence that causes them to seek treatment (or that causes their loved ones to seek treatment on their behalf).

For example, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that the most commonly misdiagnosed vascular event is stroke. Along with stroke, other commonly misdiagnosed vascular events include:

  • Heart attack
  • Venous thromboembolism
  • Aortic aneurysm and dissection
  • Arterial thromboembolism
  • Endocarditis

Along with their acute symptoms, the severity of the risks associated with these conditions means that doctors should be providing accurate diagnoses in nearly all cases. Many vascular events are truly life threatening. When there is any possibility that a patient could be at risk for life-altering or life-threatening complications, it is imperative that doctors do what is necessary to make an accurate diagnosis and begin administering appropriate treatment as soon as possible. When they don’t, they can—and should—be held accountable.

3. Misdiagnosis of Infections (13.5 Percent of Diagnostic Errors)

Undiagnosed infections can also present life-altering and life-threatening risks in many cases. Also, like cancers and vascular events, infections are eminently diagnosable conditions in the vast majority of circumstances. As a result, when patients’ infections go undiagnosed—and in particular those that present risks for death or permanent disability—rarely is there an explanation that justifies their doctors’ failures.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, 13.5 percent of diagnostic errors resulting in death or permanent disability involve failure to timely diagnose infections. This includes sepsis. Tragically, one of the most dangerous types of infections is also one of the most frequently misdiagnosed. Other infections that have a high rate of misdiagnosis include:

  • Celiac disease
  • Encephalitis
  • Lyme disease
  • Meningitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Spinal infections
  • Staph

In many cases, infections are dangerous not only because of the direct risks they present, but because of their indirect effects on patients’ health as well. Patients who are fighting infections often have weakened immune systems, and this can make them significantly more prone to contracting other dangerous illnesses and diseases. Whether an undiagnosed patient suffers unnecessarily due to an infection or due to an infection-related complication, the failure to diagnose the patient’s condition is the triggering cause—and it is a cause for which the patient (or the patient’s family) can seek just compensation under Florida law.

Other Commonly Misdiagnosed Medical Conditions

In addition to cancers, vascular events, and infections, many other medical conditions are commonly misdiagnosed as well. As noted above, while the “Big 3” account for the majority of all medical malpractice cases involving diagnostic errors, more than 1 in 4 cases involve other conditions. This includes commonly misdiagnosed conditions such as:

  • Birth injuries and defects
  • Bone fractures
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Epileptic seizures
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Spinal cord injuries (SCI)
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBI)

Similar to the other conditions discussed above, misdiagnosis of these conditions will constitute medical malpractice in many—if not most—cases. When doctors have access to the information they need to provide an accurate diagnosis (whether from the patient, through scans or testing, or by consulting with specialists), their failure to do so is unjustified. Yet, misdiagnosis of these and other conditions remains far too common, and doctors frequently overlook or ignore simple steps they can take to protect their patients from life-altering or life-threatening complications.

How Healthcare Providers Can (and Should) Prevent Diagnostic Errors

What are some of the steps that doctors can take to avoid diagnostic mistakes? The Johns Hopkins Medicine article linked above suggests several options. While doctors can take some of these steps themselves, in many cases they will need to rely on their hospitals or other employers to provide the tools they need. When diagnostic errors result from failures at the institutional level, patients and their families can file claims against the entities that are responsible for their financial costs, pain and suffering, and other losses.

As identified by Johns Hopkins Medicine, some examples of steps that doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers can (and should) take to prevent diagnostic errors include:

  • Using computer-based diagnostic decision support tools
  • Increasing immediate access to specialists
  • More effective teamwork
  • More effective patient engagement
  • Routine diagnostic performance feedback, review, and training

Additionally, in many cases, doctors simply need to slow down. In today’s insurance-driven healthcare system, doctors often spend just a few minutes—at most—with their patients. They rush through the most likely diagnoses, and they often fail to adequately consider the alternatives. Time pressure frequently leads to mistakes and oversights when reviewing scans and test results as well; and, in many misdiagnosis cases, the information doctors need is literally right in front of them.

What To Do if You May Have a Claim for Medical Malpractice

If you or a loved one has suffered due to a diagnostic error, what should you do? Most immediately, if you or your loved one is in need of care, you should see a different healthcare provider at an unaffiliated facility. While this can be daunting, it is important, and there are reputable specialists in South Florida who you can trust to provide the standard of care you expect in the medical setting.

You should also speak with a medical malpractice lawyer about your legal rights. As discussed above, diagnostic errors constitute medical malpractice in many cases. If your (or your loved one’s) doctor committed medical malpractice, you can—and should—work with a lawyer to seek just compensation for your out-of-pocket costs, pain and suffering, loss of consortium and companionship, and other losses.

At Silva & Silva, our lawyers have decades of experience helping patients and families recover just compensation for diagnostic errors and other forms of medical malpractice in Florida. If you have a claim, we can explain everything you need to know. We can gather the documentation needed to prove your claim, and we can deal with the insurance companies to recover just compensation on your behalf.

Contact Us To Discuss Your Diagnosis-Related Medical Malpractice Claim in Confidence

If you would like to speak with a medical malpractice lawyer about filing a diagnosis-related medical malpractice claim in Florida, we invite you to get in touch. To schedule a free and confidential consultation at Silva & Silva, please call 305-445-0011 or inquire online today.