Cancer misdiagnosis can be fatal for the patient

Closeup of stethoscope

Misdiagnosis of severe medical conditions is more likely to occur than other medical malpractice issues such as surgical error. In spite of medical advancements and improvements in the health care system, the rates of misdiagnosis remain high in the United States. Some studies report that between 40,000 and 80,000 deaths occur each year because of a failure to diagnose or a misdiagnosis. Cancer is one of the more frequently misdiagnosed diseases because many other health issues mimic common cancer symptoms. Studies indicate that as many as 15 percent of cancer cases involve a misdiagnosis.

Elements of viable malpractice claims

In order for a malpractice claim of misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose to be viable in court, a patient must prove the following:

  • When the alleged misdiagnosis occurred, a doctor-patient relationship existed
  • The misdiagnosis constituted negligence
  • The patient experienced harm as a result of the negligence 

The case of a New York woman who died of cancer in 2013 illustrates these three elements. She visited the emergency room with complaints of chest pain. The hospital took x-rays and a first-year resident diagnosed her with asthma, advised her to take Motrin, and sent her home.

Over the next two years, the woman continued to seek medical care. During that time, no one looked at the x-ray results. If they had, they would have discovered that there was a suspicious nodule in one of her lungs, noted by the radiologist. When she returned to the hospital emergency room with complaints of a chronic cough two years later, a doctor finally looked at the x-ray. By this time, the nodule had grown and she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. To make matters worse, the cancer had spread throughout both lungs and into her liver, brain and spine. As a direct result of the hospital error, her condition was terminal; the doctor told her that had the diagnosis been made during that first visit, the cancer could have been treated with surgery.

Statute of limitations

The statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases caused another unfortunate issue in the above case. The length of time for the statute of limitations varies from state to state. In the New York case, it was 15 months, so the law did not entitle the woman’s family to damages based on her wrongful death. In Illinois, a patient has two years to file the lawsuit after the discovery of the injury, or within four years of the negligent act. Minors who receive an injury due to a doctor’s mistake have eight years or until their twenty-second birthday to file a lawsuit, whichever comes first.

Because of the statute of limitations and the processes involved in proving medical negligence, patients who discover that they have sustained injury due to misdiagnosis should not delay seeking legal counsel.