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Doctors’ failure to diagnose can put lives in danger1

When patients are seen in a medical setting, they run the risk of receiving the wrong diagnosis. This could lead to serious patient harm and even death.

Doctors, nurses and health care professionals are highly regarded as some of the most trusted professionals in the country. People in Iowa and across the country place their lives in the hands of these professionals every day as they are seen for minor and major illnesses. While many patients are accurately diagnosed with a common cold or harmless virus, or perhaps a more serious condition such as cancer and heart disease, a surprising number of patients are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Doctors fail to accurately diagnose patients more often than some may think and this can lead to serious patient injury and even death.

The prevalence of misdiagnosis

According to research published by a peer-reviewed healthcare journal centered on improved patient safety and quality of care, BMJ Quality and Safety, it is estimated that approximately one in every twenty American adults seen in an outpatient clinic, physician’s office or emergency room receives the wrong diagnosis.[1] When applied to the total American population, this equates to more than 12 million diagnostic errors each year. It is further estimated that approximately six million of these cases may cause the patient potential harm.[2] Finally, NBC News reports that these numbers may be significantly understated as there are many cases that go unnoticed or unreported.[3]

Although a misdiagnosis may have minor consequences in some cases, other mistakes may be more critical. For example, a doctor who misreads an x-ray may determine that a white cloudy mass in a patient’s lungs is pneumonia. Yet, it very well could be cancer. Failure to diagnose the cancerous mass on the first reading could allow time for the cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body. This could possibly lead to a fatal outcome for the patient. Depending on the specific facts of the case, this failure to diagnosis could be negligent.

Factors that lead to misdiagnosis

There are several factors that can lead to medical misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose in a hospital or outpatient clinic setting. These factors include but are not limited to:

• Doctors may misinterpret information or screening tests

• Physicians who are busy or overbooked may not spend an adequate amount of time with each patient.

• Physicians may fail to evaluate the full medical history of a patient.

• Doctors order the wrong type of test, which would not show the root cause of the problem.

In addition, doctors who are drowsy or inexperienced have an increased chance of overlooking a simple detail that may lead to a different diagnosis.

When to involve an attorney

If your life has been affected by a misdiagnosis, a doctor’s failure to diagnose a condition or another type of medical malpractice, you may want to turn to an attorney for help. An attorney can help you evaluate the situation in order to determine if the misdiagnosis was negligent and whether you have a viable medical malpractice claim.

You should not delay in contacting an attorney because Iowa has statutory rules, which act to limit the time period in which a lawsuit may be filed against medical professionals. These rules are known as the statute of limitations and the statute of repose. An attorney may be able to help you determine how the various deadlines apply to your potential case.

To request a free case evaluation about your potential misdiagnosis case, call the West Des Moines office of Hixson & Brown, P.C. at 515-650-4531 or toll free at 800-229-9854. You can also reach us via our online contact form.


[1] NBC News, “Misdiagnosed: Docs’ Mistakes Affect 12 Million a Year,” April 16, 2014.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

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