Types of Medical Diagnostic Errors

(Page 2 of 2 of Medical Malpractice: Misdiagnosis and Delayed Diagnosis)

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There are several ways that physicians and other medical professionals can make diagnostic mistakes.

  • Wrong diagnosis. Also called misdiagnosis, this is when the doctor picks the wrong illness. For example, a doctor diagnoses a patient with a gastric problem when in fact the patient was having a heart attack. Or, the doctor diagnoses cancer when the patient is cancer-free.
  • Missed diagnosis. The doctor gives the patient a clean bill of health, when in fact the patient has an illness or disease.
  • Delayed diagnosis. The doctor eventually makes the correct diagnosis, but after significant delay. Late diagnosis is one of the more common types of diagnosis error.
  • Failure to recognize complications. The doctor makes the right diagnosis, but fails to identify complications or factors which change or aggravate the illness or condition.
  • Failure to diagnose a related disease. The doctor correctly diagnoses one disease, but fails to diagnose a related disease. A related disease is one that often goes hand-in-hand with the primary condition or that has a higher risk of incidence in patients with the primary disease.
  • Failure to diagnose an unrelated disease. The doctor correctly diagnoses one disease, but fails to diagnose a completely unrelated second disease.

Misdiagnosis in the Emergency Room

Not surprisingly, the incidence of misdiagnosis is much higher in emergency settings. Increased time pressure translates into less time to investigate differential diagnoses. And the severe nature of many emergency room illnesses and injuries means that a missed or incorrect diagnosis is more likely to result in harm to the patient.

In an emergency room, less common illnesses and conditions are more likely to escape correct diagnosis. Conditions that are uncommon in certain patient populations are also less likely to be correctly diagnosed. For example, a young woman experiencing gastric distress (one symptom of a heart attack) is less likely to be diagnosed with a heart attack than an overweight, middle-aged man with the same symptoms.

Examples of conditions that are commonly misdiagnosed in an emergency room include heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolism, and meningitis. Appendicitis is misdiagnosed in 28% to 57% of children under the age of 12 and in close to 100% of infants. (To learn more about medical malpractice occurring in emergency settings, see Nolo's article Medical Malpractice During Emergencies.)

Getting Help

Medical malpractice cases are highly regulated by complex rules that vary considerably from state to state, so it's often essential to get advice or representation from an experienced medical malpractice lawyer.

For help on choosing a good medical malpractice attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. See Nolo's Medical Malpractice Lawyer Directory to find an attorney in your area.

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