Errors in Ruling Out a Diagnosis Lawyers
The way that most diagnoses proceed is by a process of elimination. First, the doctor makes a list of probable causes for the symptoms a patient presents, then rules out conditions from the list based on further questions, continued patient observation and testing. Eventually, all diagnoses but one are ruled out, and the doctor forms a treatment plan addressing this probable cause.
However, sometimes this process of elimination — which is called differential diagnosis — rules out the actual cause of a patient’s symptoms, resulting in a delayed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis. Other times the process fails to take into account other symptoms or conditions, and is similarly misdirected. When these errors result in measurable injury or a worsened prognosis, it may be grounds to look into the possibility of medical malpractice.
The Idea Behind Differential Diagnosis
When doctors make a diagnosis, they work from their body of knowledge and their observations, somewhat like a detective. Like a detective, they gather clues and eliminate suspects when assembling their list.
A skilled doctor will put the most life-threatening and probable causes at the top of the list. By the process of ruling out diagnoses, the doctor should narrow the list. In the way a detective narrows down a range of possibilities, they should proceed methodically, following these steps:
- Note a patient’s symptoms and risk factors
- Through differential diagnosis, make a list of possible medical conditions that could be causing the patient’s symptoms
- Schedule diagnostic tests for conditions that cannot be ruled out
- Using the test results and their medical knowledge, the doctor should rule out all but one condition from their list, or at least narrow down the field for future observation
When Do Doctors Make Errors in Ruling Out a Diagnosis?
The process of differential diagnosis relies heavily on a doctor’s knowledge, skills in observation and logic. With about 10,000 diseases to rule out and 200–300 symptoms that indicate the correct diagnosis, it’s easy to understand how some experts put the risk of misdiagnosis as high as 40 percent.
Sometimes these errors are unavoidable, but other times they come down to predictable mistakes, like the following:
- Leaving a potential diagnosis off of the differential diagnosis list
- Failing to adequately test a possible diagnosis
- Missing a symptom
- Not revising the differential diagnosis list in light of new information
- Receiving flawed test results from a lab
- Misinterpreting test results
- Failing to follow up on test results
- Poor monitoring of a condition that hasn’t been ruled out
How Errors in Ruling Out a Diagnosis Can Contribute to Delayed Diagnoses
Often, the differential diagnosis process will indicate a less immediate path on the way to finding the correct diagnosis — by monitoring the patient for further symptoms and adopting a wait-and-see approach regarding diagnosis. However, this may cause a doctor to take the symptoms already manifested less seriously, contributing to poor monitoring of a possible condition.
For a patient at risk of heart disease, a failure to monitor their heart rate and risk factors may pave the way for an avoidable heart attack. Or a pregnant woman may show signs of possible birth complications but the doctor fails to follow up by monitoring fetal distress during labor, missing a chance to intervene with an emergency C-section and contributing to the possibility of a birth injury occurring.
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The Dangers of Misdiagnosis
While the numbers vary on its impact, it’s clear that misdiagnosis constitutes a serious problem for patients:
- 40,000–80,000 deaths occur per year in US hospitals as a result of misdiagnosis
- 12 million Americans suffer a misdiagnosis in a primary care setting each year, and 33 percent of these misdiagnoses lead to “serious permanent damage” or “immediate or inevitable death”
When to Consult with an Experienced Malpractice Attorney
If you feel like an error in the differential diagnosis process resulted in serious injury or a worsened future outlook for your condition or that of a loved one, the best course of action is to consult with skilled attorneys like those at McEldrew Young Purtell as soon as possible. With 30 years of experience in medical malpractice, McEldrew Young Purtell is well suited to evaluate the situation and help determine if the injury suffered involved acts of medical negligence or professional malpractice.