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How do doctors miss a cancer diagnosis?

Imagine that you don’t feel well. Maybe you are tired and fatigued all the time and don’t know why. Maybe you feel sick or nauseated. Maybe you are even in pain. Maybe you don’t even know exactly what you are experiencing but you know: something is wrong. You go to a doctor and explain your symptoms. The doctor gives you a diagnosis and recommends treatment.

Months pass, and you still aren’t improving. You seek medical advice again and the doctor tells you: you have cancer. You have had cancer this entire time and precious time has been wasted because the doctor you initially went to see was incorrect.

For many Americans, this is reality. An estimated 5% of medical diagnoses are incorrect. This is a conservative estimate because often incorrect diagnoses are not reported or uncovered. For minor medical problems, this is alright, because the body will mend itself and move on. But for major medical problems, such as cancer, a wrong early diagnosis can be the difference between life and death.

Misdiagnosis vs. Missed Diagnosis

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of diagnosis mistakes that doctors can make: missed diagnosis and misdiagnosis.

Misdiagnosis is when a doctor considers a patient’s symptoms and test results, but the diagnosis they give is not correct. A misdiagnosis is often due to symptoms of the real ailment also reflecting the symptoms of a different illness. Breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, and prostate cancer are the most common misdiagnosed cancers.

A missed diagnosis is when a doctor misses, dismisses, or ignores symptoms, leading to a complete lack of diagnosis or treatment. A missed diagnosis can lead to worsening of the illness due to lack of intervening treatment, as well taking a psychological toll on the patient, who feels like their symptoms are being ignored or have no reason behind them. Examples of missed diagnoses can be:

  • A patient being told a tumor is benign, only to later find out it is malignant.
  • A woman experiencing abdominal symptoms being referred out to a gastroenterologist, when the real culprit is ovarian cancer.
  • A doctor neglecting to get a biopsy after an abnormal test result, thus resulting in a delayed diagnosis.

Misdiagnosis and missed diagnoses can both have severe impacts on patients, both physically and mentally.

Is failing to correctly diagnose cancer medical malpractice?

Doctors are human and sometimes mistakes happen – but if a failure to diagnose an illness resulted in disease progression that could have been prevented by a timely diagnosis, that doctor can be held liable. This can also be the case if you were misdiagnosed and the treatment your doctor gave you resulted in worsening of your health.

We want to trust our doctors, so finding out that a first diagnosis was wrong or altogether missed can be a horrible experience. The consequences of an incorrect diagnosis can be absolutely detrimental to the health of a patient. Patients deserve compassionate, holistic, and accurate medical care, and not receiving that can be the difference between life and death.