Failure to Diagnose Cancer: Consequences and Culpability

A health care provider may be held liable for medical malpractice when the provider carelessly or negligently treats or fails to treat a patient in his or her care. A health care provider's liability under medical malpractice law varies from state to state. However, all states recognize "failure to diagnose" as an actionable offense under certain circumstances.

Failure to Diagnose

The phrase "failure to diagnose" encompasses a variety of negligent practices, including misdiagnosis, failure to provide appropriate treatment, unreasonable delay in treatment and explicit failure to diagnose an illness, injury or condition. In essence, "failure to diagnose" refers to any failure to take medically appropriate actions under an individual patient's circumstances.

A failure to diagnose cancer can be particularly problematic, as any delay in treatment will affect the patient's prognosis. The longer cancer goes unacknowledged, untreated or inadequately treated, the greater the risks to the patient. If untreated, cancer will progress into more advanced stages, which will likely require that more aggressive and invasive forms of treatment be administered when the cancer is eventually discovered. In extreme cases, a failure to diagnose a patient's cancer can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, failure to diagnose cancer is one of the most common medical malpractice complaints.

Common "Failure to Diagnose" Mistakes

A recent study indicated that roughly twelve percent of cancer cases are misdiagnosed as a result of reader error and poor sampling techniques. These are only two of the various errors that can contribute to a failure to diagnose issue. Other common errors include the failure to:

  • Order or follow-up necessary testing, such as biopsy, CT scan or MRI
  • Recognize common symptoms of cancer and failure to follow-up with the patient concerning symptoms
  • Properly assess tests and scans
  • Recognize a condition as cancer/misdiagnosis
  • Failure to obtain necessary patient information/history

Commonly Missed Diagnoses

Cancer is an increasingly treatable disease. Avenues of treatment vary wildly depending on the circumstances of the patient, but generally surgery, hormone therapy, radiation or chemotherapy can be explored as options if cancer is diagnosed early enough in its stages. Certain cancers that are uniquely susceptible to mistaken diagnoses, however, may be missed in their early stages by a negligent health care provider.

For example, breast cancer should be easily detected and treated if yearly mammograms are properly performed and interpreted by radiologists, but unfortunately failure to diagnose breast cancer is a startlingly common claim. Partially due to the prevalence of delayed diagnosis, breast cancer often costs women one or more of their breasts, numerous other health problems and even death. 40,000 women are expected to die from breast cancer this year, even though the breast cancer fatality rate has dropped more than two percent a year for the past decade.

The following types of cancers are also often under or misdiagnosed:

  • Lung Cancer: is often diagnosed as another condition like bronchitis or tuberculosis, especially in under-diagnosed non-smokers, who are not usually viewed as at-risk
  • Colon Cancer: is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, even though a fairly routine colonoscopy is a good detector of the condition. Delay in diagnosis of colon cancer often means the difference between laparoscopic and open abdominal surgery
  • Esophageal Cancer: should be easily detectible due to the distinct symptoms of the condition, including difficulty swallowing, a chronic cough and severe weight loss
  • Cervical Cancer: has high survival rates and should be detected by yearly pap exams. However, misinterpreting the results, etc. resulting in a failure to diagnose can lead to advanced stages, infertility even death

For Further Reference

Health care providers who fail to diagnose cancer may be liable for medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of companionship and other damages. As provider liability for medical malpractice varies from state to state, it is important to contact an experienced personal injury attorney in your state if you or someone you care about has suffered as a result of a provider's failure to diagnose cancer.