Within Boston's city limits, you will find more than 20 hospitals, including Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children's Hospital, both of which regularly receive recognition for being the top hospitals in the United States. Greater Boston also lays claim to some of the most prestigious medical schools, doctors, and scientists.
When you fall ill or go in for a regular check-up in Boston, many can usually feel confident in the quality of your medical care; however, sometimes this may not prove true. Boston residents might struggle to distinguish between competent medical professionals and those who lack experience or do not provide the expected standard of care.
Sometimes, doctors make mistakes that can cause permanent damage or even death. Misdiagnosing a major disease or condition constitutes a serious medical mistake and often serves as justification for medical malpractice lawsuits. Below, we offer a closer look at misdiagnosis, its dangers, common misdiagnoses, and issues related to the legal process of filing and proving a medical malpractice case in Boston.
What Is Misdiagnosis?
Misdiagnosis refers to a situation in which your physician diagnoses you with an incorrect illness or condition. When it comes to medical malpractice lawsuits, diagnostic errors also include the failure to diagnose a disease or condition, a delayed diagnosis, and a failure to recognize symptoms that aggravate an existing condition. Doctors sometimes diagnose one disease or condition correctly but misdiagnose or fail to diagnose a second condition or disease.
Specific actions often related to misdiagnosis include:
Failing to screen for a specific illness or disease
Failing to refer a patient to a specialist
Misreading of diagnostic scans and laboratory tests
Failing to communicate with patients about their symptoms
Failing to take a complete patient medical history
Failing to investigate possible causes of reported symptoms
How Often Do Doctors Misdiagnose Patients?
It often proves difficult to determine the actual amount of misdiagnosed patients compared to those who have received an accurate diagnosis. Misdiagnoses often go unreported due to the medical field's general lack of a reporting mechanism for such errors. However, experts conservatively estimate that approximately five percent of outpatients receive a misdiagnosis, impacting about 12,000,000 individuals across the United States each year. This means that out of the last 20 doctor visits you made that resulted in a diagnosis, at least one of them likely involved a misdiagnosis.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that everyone will experience at least one diagnostic error during their lifetime, some with treacherous consequences. In fact, between 40,000 and 80,000 people die in hospitals across the United States each year from diagnostic errors. The same number of people suffers permanent disability from misdiagnosis. The numbers dramatically increase when you consider patients across all clinical settings.
In another study, the Mayo Clinic collected data from patients seeking second opinions on their condition. This study resulted in even more alarming statistics. Researchers reported only 12 percent of patients received a correct diagnosis from their primary care physicians. Over 20 percent of patients received a misdiagnosis, and approximately 66 percent needed changes to their initial diagnoses.
Dangers of Misdiagnosis
Sometimes, a misdiagnosis does not cause any further damage or injury to a patient. However, many times a misdiagnosed illness or disease comes with various dangers or negative consequences, including:
Worsened condition. If your doctor diagnoses you with the wrong disease or condition, you will likely also receive the wrong treatment. Prescribing the wrong medication or treatment for a disease or illness can cause organ damage, leading to organ failure, heart attacks, strokes, and other life-threatening events. At the same time, you may not receive treatment for your actual medical issue, so it worsens.
Aggressive treatment. The wrong diagnosis can expose a patient to a more aggressive treatment than needed for the condition. Aggressive treatment can prove harmful, especially when considering certain consequences, like unneeded chemotherapy or radiation.
Unneeded surgery. Sometimes, a misdiagnosis can lead to unnecessary surgeries, forcing a patient to undergo the risks of surgery without enjoying any of the potential benefits.
Delayed treatment. Fortunately, Greater Boston has many hospitals where patients can go to get a second opinion and ensure that they received a correct initial diagnosis. However, delayed treatment comes with a delayed diagnosis. Early detection often proves key to surviving many potentially terminal diseases and conditions. Delayed treatment may not prove as effective.
Death. A misdiagnosis can lead to death. If patients do not die because their condition or disease worsens, they could die from receiving the wrong treatment. Patients who receive unneeded treatments can suffer various medical complications that might lead to death.
What Causes Misdiagnoses in Boston and Throughout the Nation?
On a broad level, misdiagnoses and other diagnostic errors occur for two main reasons: (1) human error and (2) system breakdown. Doctors have the same biases and limitations that affect every other person. Advances in medicine over the last century have identified more than 10,000 diseases and over 3,500 lab tests to identify those diseases. However, symptoms of these diseases often overlap, and one symptom may indicate the possibility of many different illnesses. For example, a fever can indicate hundreds of different ailments and options for testing. Doctors do not always get it right on the first try.
Healthcare systems connect hundreds of processes, practices, procedures, and technologies, particularly in Boston, due to the city's large number of hospitals, physicians, and specialists. Although patient safety remains a focus in every healthcare facility, this large number of connections naturally comes with the risk of miscommunication and various other breakdowns that lead to diagnostic errors, some of which can prove dangerous or even fatal.
Examples of Common Misdiagnoses
Physicians can and do misdiagnose many diseases and conditions. However, some conditions get misdiagnosed more often than others, whether because they occur more commonly or have too many symptoms that overlap with other diagnoses.
Below, we provide examples of some commonly misdiagnosed ailments:
Doctors often misdiagnose asthma as recurring bronchitis.
Doctors often misdiagnose heart attacks as panic attacks or indigestion.
Doctors often misdiagnose Lyme disease as depression, mononucleosis (“the kissing disease”), or the flu.
Doctors often misdiagnose Parkinson's disease as a stroke, stress, or Alzheimer's disease.
Doctors often mistake lupus for rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue, or fibromyalgia.
Research shows that the most diagnostic errors occur with infections, cancers, and vascular events, such as heart attacks. One study broke down these areas into 15 specific conditions and diseases and found that doctors most often misdiagnosed lung cancer, stroke, and sepsis.
You should keep in mind that misdiagnosis and other diagnostic errors don't always constitute medical malpractice. Patients must prove that their doctors' negligence led to their misdiagnoses.
Proving Medical Malpractice After Misdiagnosis
If a physician misdiagnoses a patient, it does not automatically constitute medical malpractice. Certain elements must exist for a viable medical malpractice claim based on misdiagnosis or another related diagnostic error. Specifically, you must prove negligence to prevail in a medical malpractice claim. To succeed in a medical malpractice claim, injured individuals must prove the following elements of negligence:
Duty of Care
In typical personal injury claims that emerge from car accidents or other events, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. For example, motorists have a duty of care to others on the road to drive safely and follow traffic laws. In medical malpractice claims, a doctor-patient relationship automatically establishes a duty of care. Doctors have a legal duty to provide a standard of medical care to their patients that meets norms and requirements within the medical community. Proving negligence in a medical malpractice case that stems from a misdiagnosis requires that the injured individual received medical care from a negligent doctor who misdiagnosed a disease or illness.
Breach of the Duty of Care
This element of a medical malpractice claim requires a bit more effort and evidence to establish. Courts consider doctors negligent when they breach the duty of care owed to their patients, but what does it mean to breach the duty of care? Lawyers, investigators, and insurance companies will compare a doctor's diagnostic choices with other doctors in similar situations.
Doctors who meet the expected standard of care make the same or similar choices that another doctor would make, such as ordering the same tests, interpreting the results in the same way, and recommending the same treatment. When a doctor makes a misdiagnosis that strays from the standard in the medical community, the doctor has breached the duty of care owed to the patient.
Even when doctors breach their duty and misdiagnose a patient, they do not always cause harm, particularly when a patient first reports symptoms. For misdiagnosis to qualify as medical malpractice, a patient must suffer physical consequences from the misdiagnosis. The physical impact of a misdiagnosis varies greatly depending on the situation and the underlying illness or disease.
A patient might suffer a stroke or heart attack from the wrong treatment; the disease might progress to a less treatable stage; and patients might suffer permanent organ damage or undergo unnecessary surgery. Sometimes, patients react to the wrong treatment, but once they stop the treatment, adverse effects reverse and eliminate the possibility of permanent damage.
Many medical malpractice claims, including those involving misdiagnosis, hinge on causation—that is, you must prove that your doctor's breach of duty caused the damage or adverse effects you suffered from the misdiagnosis. This can prove especially tricky when a patient has a terminal disease. Consider a situation where a doctor misdiagnosed a patient who had cancer.
Whether through a second opinion at another Boston hospital or because the doctor finally made the proper diagnosis, the delayed diagnosis could impact treatment options and chances for survival. Proving causation means that you must prove that your medical outcome would have been different had you received the correct diagnosis. Injured individuals may more easily prove causation when not suffering from a terminal illness.
What Should You Do if You Suspect Misdiagnosis?
You had symptoms or complications, so you visited your doctor with the expectation that he or she would diagnose your illness and provide you with treatment options that help you feel better and heal. If you begin to feel worse, you could have fallen victim to medical malpractice. If you feel increased pain or experience scary symptoms or side effects, you should go to urgent care or the emergency room at Mass General or another nearby Boston hospital without hesitation.
You might choose to seek a second opinion from another Boston physician immediately.
However, if you choose to let your doctor continue to treat you, follow these guidelines to protect your health and the value of a medical malpractice claim:
Always follow your doctor's orders unless you see no positive change or they make your condition worse.
Do not wait to seek out additional medical treatment if you feel your condition worsening.
Do not purposefully let your condition worsen to try to increase the strength of your claim.
Seek additional medical treatment or a second opinion if you want, even if your doctor instructs you otherwise.
You should prioritize your health and safety. Once you feel safe to do so, contact an experienced Boston medical malpractice attorney who can review your situation and determine if your misdiagnosis warrants taking legal action.
Suing for Damages After a Misdiagnosis
If a doctor misdiagnoses you, and you suffer harm as a result, you may have a viable medical malpractice claim under Massachusetts law.
If you choose to bring a claim against the doctor and/or hospital, you could receive compensation for the following damages if you win your case:
Current and future necessary medical expenses, including surgery, X-rays, rehabilitation, prosthetic devices, ambulance service, drugs, hospitalization, and nursing services
Current lost wages, future lost wages, or loss of earning capacity if the harm from misdiagnosis prevents working in the future
Pain and suffering
Loss of companionship
Disfigurement or permanent disability
If you suffered harm from your doctor's misdiagnosis, consult an experienced Boston medical malpractice attorney who can evaluate the viability of your claim and advise you on your next steps.
Clearwater Personal Injury and Insurance Attorney
This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess or $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.