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When Does a Delayed Diagnosis Constitute Medical Malpractice?

Written by Berkowitz

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When the failure to timely diagnose a patient’s condition results in the patient not receiving the medical care he or she needs, the patient (or the patient’s family) will often be entitled to just compensation. While some delayed diagnoses are medically justified, many are the result of diagnostic errors that constitute medical malpractice.

Delayed diagnosis is the most common form of medical malpractice in Connecticut and throughout the United States. Despite clear diagnostic procedures and extraordinary advancements in medical technology, the unfortunate reality is that many doctors still do not devote the time and attention necessary to understand and timely diagnose their patients’ conditions. From failing to conduct thorough exams and failing to consider potential diagnoses to misreading test results and sending patients home too soon, there are several factors to blame for the high rate of delayed diagnoses, and all of these factors have the potential to constitute medical malpractice.

When Is a Diagnosis Considered “Delayed”?

In the context of assessing potential medical malpractice claims based upon delayed diagnoses, one of the first issues that needs to be addressed is this: When is a diagnosis considered “delayed”?

Not All Medical Conditions Can Be Diagnosed Immediately

Due to the nature of most injuries and illnesses, it is virtually impossible for them to be diagnosed immediately (although there are exceptions; for example, when a patient is being monitored in a hospital). Patients must seek medical care in order to receive a diagnosis, so there is inherently going to be some amount of delay that is beyond any doctor’s or health care facility’s control. Furthermore, even once a patient seeks medical care, some amount of delay is still to be expected. Whether it takes time for the ambulance to arrive at the scene of an accident or multiple tests need to be performed in order to narrow down the list of potential diagnoses, there are various practical barriers to providing an immediate diagnosis.

Then, there is the fact that some diseases and other medical conditions develop over time. A patient may present with generic symptoms that are potentially indicative of numerous different conditions, and it may not be possible to pinpoint the patient’s illness until more information is available. Rare diseases and disorders may take longer to diagnose as well, as doctors will often focus on the most likely diagnoses in order to provide treatment that may mitigate the risk of further harm.

Doctors Have a Duty to Provide Diagnoses That Are as Timely as Possible

With these considerations in mind, while doctors cannot always be expected to diagnose patients’ conditions immediately, they do have a legal and ethical duty to provide diagnoses in as timely a manner as possible. If an opportunity to diagnose a patient’s condition is missed, this is the fundamental basis for a claim for medical malpractice. If a delay in diagnosing a patient’s condition is not due to factors beyond a doctor’s control, but is instead directly attributable to the doctor’s failure to meet his or her duty of care, then the patient (or the patient’s family) is entitled to seek just compensation for the consequences of the doctor’s mistake.

What Are the Most Common Causes of Delayed Diagnoses?

Many different types of medical mistakes can result in patients not receiving timely and accurate diagnoses. As a patient or family member, understanding the cause of a delayed diagnosis is less important than simply being aware that the delayed diagnosis has occurred (your attorney will be able to work with trusted medical experts to determine the cause of the delay for you). However, it can still be beneficial to be aware of some of the warning signs for diagnostic errors. For example, some of the most-common causes of delayed diagnoses include:

  • Inadequate Physical Exam – One extremely common issue is the failure to perform an adequate physical exam. The physical exam is usually the doctor’s first interaction with a patient, and this means that it is the first opportunity to gather the information needed to provide a timely and accurate diagnosis. If a doctor’s physical exam is inadequate, he or she may send a patient home despite the presence of diagnosable symptoms.
  • Failure to Order Necessary Tests or Scans – Delayed diagnoses can also result from the failure to order necessary tests or scans. X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, CGX screenings, and a multitude of other tests can be used to diagnose injuries, diseases, and disorders that cannot be diagnosed through a physical exam alone – but only if they are actually performed.
  • Rushed Patient Care – All of us have had the experience of feeling like our doctors are rushing from one patient to the next. Due to limited staffing, the nature of health insurance coverage, and various other factors, many doctors do indeed rush their visits with patients. And this is a major factor in many failures to identify patients’ medical needs.
  • Overcrowded Emergency Rooms – For patients who visit the emergency room (ER), overcrowding can be a factor in receiving a delayed diagnosis as well. This can be true whether the overcrowding results in the patient not seeing an ER doctor within an appropriate amount of time, or it results in a doctor rushing the patient’s exam and diagnosis.
  • Inadequate Medical Staffing – Too many patients? Or, not enough doctors? In addition to trying (and failing) to serve more patients than they can handle, many medical facilities are also severely understaffed. In any case, if untimely or inadequate care results in a delayed diagnosis, then the facility deserves to be held accountable.
  • Patient Record Management Deficiencies – Failure to appropriately manage patient records is a common factor in delayed diagnosis cases as well. If a patient’s condition has developed over time but his or her records do not adequately reflect the progression, or if a patient’s records are not available to his or her doctor prior to or during an exam, this can result in a delayed diagnosis.
  • Improper Diagnosis (Misdiagnosis) – In many cases, delayed diagnoses are the result of improper diagnoses. In other words, the patient is diagnosed with a condition that he or she does not actually have; as a result, doctors stop looking for other possible explanations for the patient’s symptoms.
  • Lack of Specialized Medical Knowledge – Specialist referrals are routine in the U.S. healthcare system. However, some doctors still fail to provide necessary referrals, typically as a result of either attempting to diagnose a patient on their own or not being able to recognize the need for specialized care. In either case, failure to send the patient to a specialist has the potential to result in a delayed diagnosis.
  • Insufficient Training or Experience – Sometimes, doctors simply lack the skill, knowledge, and experience they need to timely diagnose their patients. Some doctors are better than others, and doctors who aren’t well-equipped to diagnose their patients will often fail to do so.
  • Low Quality Medical Care – Finally, it is an unfortunate reality of our medical system that many, many patients receive low quality medical care. This is entirely unjustified, and a doctor’s or hospital’s limited access to resources is not a valid excuse for failing to timely provide a patient with the diagnosis he or she needs in order to obtain appropriate medical care.

What else should patients and family members know about identifying potential diagnoses? Here are nine red flags for a delayed or missed diagnosis.

When Is a Failure to Timely Diagnose a Patient’s Condition Considered Medical Malpractice?

As we mentioned above, any failure that results in a delayed diagnosis has the potential to constitute medical malpractice. In Connecticut, doctors’ medical decisions are judged according to the standard of care in the relevant medical community. While this means that different doctors can be held to different standards (for example, a specialist in Bridgeport may be held to a higher standard than a family practitioner in a smaller city like Union or Cornwall), it also means that all doctors in Connecticut owe a clear and unrelenting duty to provide care to the best of their ability. Whether this means providing a timely diagnosis or providing a timely referral to an appropriate specialist, failing to meet this duty constitutes medical malpractice.

What If I Signed an Informed Consent Form?

If you (or your loved one) signed an informed consent form, does this prevent you from pursuing a medical malpractice claim based on a delayed diagnosis? Contrary to popular belief, the answer to this question is a resounding, “No.”

In today’s world, health care providers almost universally obtain informed consent forms from their patients. In many cases, they do so upfront, before the patient has even received a diagnosis (or been sent home without one). While these forms are designed to limit health care providers’ liability, their practical effects are not nearly as broad as many people believe.

Furthermore, as we have previously discussed, “informed” consent actually means something, and there are standards for when a patient has been adequately informed. One of these standards is that the patient must receive a confirmed diagnosis. By seeking treatment, you are not consenting to substandard care. And signing an informed consent form does not mean that you are giving up your right to seek just compensation for the harmful effects of a delayed diagnosis. This is true for all types of injuries and illnesses, and it is true for all types of complications resulting from diagnostic mistakes. This includes:

  • Delayed diagnosis of cancers
  • Delayed diagnosis of heart conditions
  • Delayed diagnosis of musculoskeletal injuries
  • Progression of cancers and other illnesses
  • Infections, permanent disabilities, and other complications
  • Negative effects due to delayed diagnosis of any other type of medical condition

Speak with a Malpractice Lawyer at Berkowitz Hanna

The attorneys at Berkowitz Hanna provide experienced legal representation for Connecticut patients and families who are suffering due to delayed diagnoses. If you have questions and would like to speak with an attorney, we invite you to call us or contact us online for a free initial consultation.