What’s the Difference Between Misdiagnosis and Delayed Diagnosis?

Published on Jul 26, 2023 at 4:09 pm in Medical Malpractice.
What’s the Difference Between Misdiagnosis and Delayed Diagnosis?

Medical malpractice, which can involve birth injuries, prescription errors, and surgical mistakes, happen all too often in Mississippi and throughout the rest of our country, forcing patients to endure unnecessary pain, leaving them with irreversible health setbacks, and causing their deaths. Included in that list of medical negligence that harms Mississippians are misdiagnoses and delayed diagnoses. These are also quite common errors doctors make in our state, causing their patients to suffer beyond measure.

When prospective clients reach out to our Biloxi law firm to discuss the health impasses they’ve been through, diagnostic-oriented ones tend to fall into one of two categories. Continue reading to learn more about what’s the difference between a misdiagnosis and a delayed diagnosis—the categories into which these experiences often fall.

What a Misdiagnosis Is

A misdiagnosis is a scenario in which a medical provider tells their patient that they have one specific injury or are suffering from one illness initially that they later discover was inaccurate.

While it’s completely understandable that a doctor may have some initial inclinations about a patient’s medical condition based on the symptoms they claim to be experiencing, the onus rests on the shoulders of the treating physician to ask probing questions and to perform any necessary tests or imaging studies to confirm their suspicions. A doctor who diagnoses a patient without taking time to engage in this additional level of inquiry leaves them vulnerable to incorrectly diagnosing a patient, causing them not to receive the proper treatment for their condition.

A common, scary example of misdiagnosis is when a patient visits an emergency room complaining of symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and chest pain. A busy doctor might write the patient’s symptoms off as mere heartburn when they’re actually experiencing early signs of a heart attack. Following that example, the emergency room physician may send the patient home with instructions to take an over-the-counter acid reducer as their symptoms persist. Within hours, the patient could find oneself being rushed to the hospital after suffering a major heart attack or dying.

In the situation above, had the physician during the initial visit only taken the initiative to ask more questions about the onset of the patient’s symptoms, such as whether they ate spicy, greasy, or other inflammatory foods before their predicament set in or whether heartburn is a regular occurrence for them and if so, if it’s often accompanied by dizziness and nausea, this could have helped them rule out their suspected diagnosis.

Asking those questions could have led the doctor to consider differential diagnoses and motivated them to order additional testing, such as an electrocardiogram (EKG), to detect any abnormal heartbeats that may have been indicative of cardiovascular distress. If that data showed any evidence of problems, a cardiologist would have been brought in to implement life-saving preventative care.

What a Delayed Diagnosis Is

A delayed diagnosis is when a physician correctly diagnoses a patient but only after they’ve previously received one or more incorrect diagnoses.

Misdiagnoses and delayed diagnoses often go hand-in-hand. A patient first receives the incorrect diagnosis (the misdiagnosis) and starts taking medication or undergoes a more invasive treatment (like surgery) for it. If they don’t respond as well to treatment as intended, then doctors may finally ask more questions and perform additional tests and imaging, ultimately determining that the initial diagnosis wasn’t accurate after all.

By the time a patient receives the correct diagnosis and begins undergoing the appropriate treatment (after that delay), their condition may have progressed. Their prognosis may be far worse than it would have otherwise been if they’d received the correct diagnosis and treatment upfront.

Cancer is one of the more common examples used to put the dangers of delayed diagnoses into perspective. A patient may initially go to the doctor showing early signs of cancer. At that point, the patient may have early-stage cancer. If a doctor writes off that patient’s symptoms without performing additional tests or imaging to rule out differential diagnoses, then they may receive too conservative of treatment for what is later determined to be fast-growing cancer.

A patient’s aggressive cancer may cause them tremendous pain and emotional distress as it takes a progressive toll on their health. Also, by the time they receive their accurate diagnosis, their cancer could be at an advanced stage where few treatment options can help.

The Value of Second Opinions in Diagnostic Situations

Most of us have a gut feeling when something isn’t right. If your doctor assigns a diagnosis that doesn’t feel right, it’s in your best interest to seek a second opinion. That simple choice can make a difference between getting better and experiencing prolonged periods of pain. That second opinion can save your life.

Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Medical Conditions

As you may have noted from the examples above, heart attacks and cancer are two of the most commonly misdiagnosed medical conditions. Patients suffering from these ailments often receive delayed diagnoses or die waiting for an accurate one.

While one of the reasons why heart attacks often go misdiagnosed is because associated symptoms are mistaken for far less serious conditions, as hinted at above, that’s not the only reason. Studies have shown that doctors seldom realize that women and men display different symptomology when in cardiac distress. Unless a doctor knows those differences, it’s possible for them to incorrectly diagnose the patient.

Cancer patients also often receive misdiagnoses or delayed diagnoses. Doctors seldom assume “the worst” when patients describe their symptoms to them. Even if they do, there are a lot of hands on deck before a physician diagnoses a patient. In some cases that can lead to diagnostic errors, including:

  • A nurse may not record accurate information when taking down a patient’s medical history
  • A malfunctioning machine or computer may produce incorrect blood test results
  • A radiologist may misread imaging studies like X-rays
  • An ultrasound technician may not take comprehensive images or measurements, and a doctor may miss noticing critical information

Your Rights if You Received a Misdiagnosis or Delayed Diagnosis

As you can likely tell from reading the descriptions above, it’s quite easy to understand how a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis could occur. Many of these instances aren’t attributable to a physician’s negligence but instead to that of a supporting medical professional.

There are also circumstances where it appears that a situation is representative of a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis scenario, but it isn’t. Some conditions are so rare and symptoms so dynamic that arriving at a succinct and accurate diagnosis isn’t as straightforward as a patient would like.

In these cases, a doctor’s actions will be compared to how a similarly trained physician would have handled the situation, including their ability to render an accurate and prompt diagnosis given similar circumstances. Negligence or liability exists when one doctor’s actions deviate from what another equally-yoked physician’s decisions would have been.

Mississippi law allows medical malpractice victims to seek compensation for any losses or damages they sustained due to a health care provider’s negligence. If you’re in this situation, reaching out to a qualified Mississippi medical malpractice attorney may be in your best interest. Corban Gunn, Attorney at Law can help you determine if your misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis situation constitutes negligence and if so, advise you of your right to take legal action to hold liable parties accountable.



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