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Cancer Misdiagnosis/Failure to Diagnose Malpractice

Cancer misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose are a profoundly serious issue in health care, often resulting in severe consequences for patients. When a doctor fails to diagnose cancer, misdiagnoses, or delays the diagnosis of cancer, the patient’s chance for cure and condition can deteriorate rapidly. And the extent of their treatment can become more life altering.

The doctor-patient relationship is grounded in trust and a standard of care that, when breached, can drastically impact the lives of cancer patients. Misdiagnoses are particularly concerning in cases of cancers like breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer, which may have better outcomes if detected early. A delay in cancer diagnosis can be the basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit but requires several critical legal and medical assessments to know if it will be successful.

When Does a Cancer Misdiagnosis Qualify as Malpractice?

Cancer misdiagnosis leads to a medical malpractice lawsuit when a healthcare provider’s action or inaction deviates from the accepted standard of care and causes harm to the patient. However, not all misdiagnoses qualify for a malpractice claim. It must be proven that a competent physician, under similar circumstances, would not have made the same error. For example, if a doctor overlooked the symptoms of breast cancer, attributed them to a less serious condition, and therefore failed to order the necessary diagnostic tests, this could constitute medical malpractice.

A delay in the diagnosis of cancer can result in a lost chance of cure (either total or partial), for more aggressive debilitating treatments, and earlier death than if the cancer were diagnosed and treated earlier. Generally, the longer the delay, the more likely it worsened the patient’s outcome. This is particularly true if this oversight resulted in significant harm or delayed treatment that exacerbated the patient’s condition.

Medical malpractice claims in such scenarios require the expertise of a specialized malpractice lawyer, who can navigate the complexities of proving negligence and harm in the context of medical care.

Cancer Misdiagnosis Case Elements

In a cancer misdiagnosis malpractice case, several elements must be established.

  • First, there must be evidence of a doctor-patient relationship, which sets the stage for the expected standard of care.
  • Second, it must be demonstrated that the doctor breached this standard through negligence.

The standard of care must be judged by physician experts who are similarly trained and board-certified as the doctor whose care is in question. For instance, if a patient complains of symptoms or displays clear signs of lung cancer and is not referred for appropriate tests, this could be considered a breach of duty. If a family practitioner was monitoring the patient, a family practice physician expert must review the standard of care to determine if an error or deviation from the standard occurred.

  • Third is the causation of otherwise avoidable injury; the patient must show that the doctor’s negligence was a substantial factor in the harm. This might involve demonstrating how an early diagnosis would have led to a better prognosis.

If a family practice physician causes a delay in referral and diagnosis, an expert physician who treats lung cancer must testify as to the difference in survival, treatment, and disability the person has suffered as a result.

  • Fourth, the patient must have suffered damages as a result of this negligence, including physical harm, financial loss, and emotional distress.

Doctor-Patient Relationship

The establishment of a doctor-patient relationship is the first critical step in bringing forth a cancer misdiagnosis case. This relationship, whether short term or long term, is legally recognized and implies that the doctor has agreed to diagnose and treat the patient, thereby accepting the responsibility to adhere to a certain standard of care. In the context of cancer misdiagnosis, this relationship is crucial to determine the duty owed by the doctor to the patient.

The doctor-patient relationship and the duty owed differ for different providers in different situations. Generally, if a patient consults a doctor and has complaints or signs that may indicate cancer, that doctor should either order appropriate testing or make the appropriate referral to a specialist to evaluate the patient further.

An established ongoing doctor-patient relationship is particularly important in the primary care setting where screening of patients for common cancers such as breast, colon, prostate, and cervical cancer is part of the duty of care. Patients must be honest when discussing their health history, and  physicians must be nonjudgmental and inquire into social factors that can increase the risk of cancer. Screening is performed on asymptomatic patients, and any failure on the physician’s part to act as a reasonably competent professional in diagnosing cancer can be a breach of this duty.

Doctor Negligence

Proving doctor negligence is central to a cancer misdiagnosis malpractice claim. This involves showing that the doctor’s actions deviated from what is considered standard medical practice. Negligence may be in various forms, such as failing to listen to a patient’s concerns, not ordering necessary diagnostic tests, misinterpreting test results, or not referring the patient to a specialist when needed.

For example, if a doctor dismisses a patient’s symptoms of colon cancer as merely irritable bowel syndrome without thorough examination or if the doctor failed to test for cancer, this could be considered doctor negligence. It must be proven that another competent doctor in a similar situation would have acted differently, leading to a correct or timelier diagnosis.

The most important factor in assessing doctor negligence is having a physician expert who is similarly trained and experienced in the care that may have been negligent. For instance, a neurosurgeon cannot provide an opinion on a gastroenterologist’s care because the training, experience, and care provided are different. So, careful selection of appropriately trained and experienced experts is important to understand if negligence occurred.

Patient Injury and Damages

For a successful medical malpractice lawsuit, it must be evident that the patient suffered specific injury or damages due to the cancer misdiagnosis. This is called causation of injury. This includes physical harm caused by delayed or inappropriate treatment, additional medical costs incurred due to the misdiagnosis, and emotional or psychological distress. A patient whose breast cancer diagnosis was delayed might undergo more aggressive treatment or have a decreased chance of survival, which could be attributed to the doctor’s negligence. Quantifying patient injury and damages, both economic and non-economic, is a critical aspect of the cancer misdiagnosis lawsuit and often requires expert testimony and detailed documentation.

Depending on the state, financial settlement may vary depending on the likelihood of avoiding injury, or the percentage of harm attributable to the error. Some injuries are all or none, such as giving the wrong drug to the wrong patient causing an anaphylactic reaction and death. But most medical malpractice errors cause an increase in the degree of injury that would not have otherwise occurred.

Cancer Misdiagnosis Damages

Cancer misdiagnosis damages are often substantial and multifaceted. Damages include the additional pain and suffering caused by the negligence, the cost of medical care past and future, financial losses due to the inability to work or provide services, and the emotional injury suffered as a result. Tangible economic damages include medical bills, lost income, and the cost of future medical care necessitated by the misdiagnosis. Additionally, patients may be entitled to compensation for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Pain and suffering damages are more subjective and can vary greatly depending on the individual case. Sometimes experts must testify as to the severe but unseen damages caused by conditions such as chemotherapy-induced brain injury or visual impairments that are perceived by the patient but not an observer. The extent and nature of the misdiagnosis, the severity of the additional harm caused, and the impact on the patient’s quality of life are all considered when determining these cancer misdiagnosis damages.

Proving Cancer Misdiagnosis

Proving cancer misdiagnosis often requires substantial medical evidence and expert testimony. Medical records, diagnostic tests, imaging studies, and treatment histories are critical in establishing what a reasonable and competent doctor would have diagnosed in the same situation. Expert witnesses, typically medical professionals in the same field, are called upon to testify about the standard of care and how the defendant’s actions deviated from this standard.

Oncologists are often part of the group of experts who need to review and testify as to the difference in outcome or treatment caused by the delay in diagnosis. Experts establish the link between the misdiagnosis and the harm suffered by the patient. Proving cancer misdiagnosis is a complex process that requires a thorough understanding of both the legal and medical aspects of the case.

What Cancers Are Most Commonly Misdiagnosed?

The cancers that are most misdiagnosed are breast cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer. These are very prevalent, are diagnosable with screening and diagnostic testing, and are commonly misdiagnosed due to their subtle or common symptoms. However, these cancers can have favorable outcomes if diagnosed and treated early, and treatments are standardized and outcomes are known.

The failure to order and the misinterpretation of diagnostic tests, such as mammograms or biopsies for breast or lung cancer, or colonoscopies for colon cancer, lead to cancer misdiagnosis or miss the cancer in its early stage. Early detection is crucial in treating these cancers effectively,  making accurate and timely diagnoses imperative for the best patient outcomes.

Contact an Experienced Medical Malpractice Lawyer

Understanding whether a cancer misdiagnosis constitutes medical malpractice is a complex and nuanced process, requiring both medical and legal expertise. This is why contacting a physician attorney for a medical malpractice lawsuit is crucial.

These specialized malpractice lawyers possess the unique blend of medical knowledge and legal acumen necessary to navigate the intricacies of medical malpractice cases. They can effectively interpret medical records, consult with medical experts, and understand the standard of care in the medical profession. With their assistance, patients can determine if malpractice occurred, assess the validity of their medical malpractice claim, and pursue the appropriate course of action.

In the overwhelming and often confusing aftermath of a cancer misdiagnosis, the attorneys at Britcher, Leone & Sergio LLC are here to help—including our physician attorney who serves as an invaluable guide in the pursuit of justice and deserved compensation. Contact our office to discuss your potential malpractice lawsuit.