Earlier this week, several online news sources reported a tragic story about Sarah Boyle, a young mother who was misdiagnosed with breast cancer when she was only 25. In 2016, doctors diagnosed Boyle with an aggressive form of breast cancer that required immediate, intense treatment. Boyle endured chemotherapy treatments, a double mastectomy, and extensive emotional trauma before doctors realized their mistake. It was not until months later, after undergoing her operation, losing her hair due to chemotherapy, and psychologically coping with her illness, that doctors told Boyle she never had cancer in the first place.
Life-changing diagnostic errors like this one are almost always caused by one small thing: human error. In this case, the results of Boyle’s biopsy were simply misread. The hospital has apologized for their mistake and created a new policy requiring two pathologists to review test results to hopefully avoid this in the future. As of now, legal proceedings are still being decided.
How Common Are Diagnostic Errors?
Statistics show that Boyle is not alone. In fact, diagnostic errors are among the most common medical malpractice cases. A new study published this year by John Hopkins University School of Medicine found that diagnostic errors caused over one in three medical malpractice claims over a 10 year period. All of the 55,000 malpractice claims analyzed in this study resulted in permanent injury or death.
Though the estimates vary, some studies suggest that there are more than 40,000 diagnostic errors annually. These errors range from mild to severe, but all diagnostic errors have the potential to dramatically alter a patient’s life.
How Serious Are Diagnostic Errors?
Diagnostic errors occur when there is either a wrong diagnosis, delayed diagnosis, or failure to diagnose. The severity of a diagnostic error depends on the diagnosis itself and the condition of the patient. In Sarah Boyle’s case, the misdiagnosis was extreme and caused extensive emotional and physical damage. While other cases might not take the same toll, diagnostic errors can still be harmful. As the lead author of the John Hopkins’ study, Dr. David Newman-Toker, says, “it’s not just inconvenient to have a wrong or delayed diagnosis. For many patients, misdiagnosis causes severe harm and expense, and in the worst cases, death.”
How Do Diagnostic Errors Happen?
The most likely sources of diagnostic errors are human error and negligence. Medical professionals are still human, and humans unfortunately make mistakes. Since many diagnoses require doctors to form opinions based on observations, there is a lot of room for error. Specifically, research has shown that four common habits contribute to diagnostic errors:
Physician bias—since doctors see thousands of patients a year, it is easy for them to make assumptions about a diagnosis by comparing the symptoms to past cases. This means that doctors might assume that their current patient has the same condition as a past patient and diagnosis them accordingly.
Favoring initial assumptions—if a doctor decides a patient has a certain condition, they might be hesitant to change their diagnosis, even if the patient develops new symptoms. Prematurely making a diagnosis contributes to a large number of diagnostic errors.
Assumptions about the patient—this refers to any biases that a doctor might have about their patient that influences their diagnosis. These biases could be based in age, race, lifestyle, among many other patient characteristics.
Obedience to procedure—while following standard protocol is often a good thing, sometimes blindly adhering to medical standards can cause diagnostic errors.
Diagnostic errors can also be caused by faulty equipment, clinical errors, errors in reading test results, or contaminating test samples. Situations where doctors are under high amounts of pressure, such as in the emergency room, are more likely to produce diagnostic errors.
How We Can Help
As seen in Sarah Boyle’s case, diagnostic errors can dramatically alter a patient’s life and cause physical and emotional turmoil. If you or a loved one is coping with the devastating consequences of diagnostic errors, the person responsible needs to be held liable. At The Brothers Law Firm, we understand your pain and frustration during this time of need. We have represented numerous clients who have suffered serious health problems and even death as a result of diagnostic errors like this. We can help you understand your legal rights and determine the best options possible to ensure you and your family get the help you need. To get started, fill out our online form to request a free consultation or call us at 281-491-3635.