What Are Medical Conditions that Doctors Often Miss?

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Diagnosing a deadly or chronic medical condition is the most important task of any doctor. Whether it is a family doctor, an outpatient clinic, a medical center, or a hospital, failure to properly diagnose a medical condition could be calamitous for the patient. Unfortunately, and sometimes tragically, missed diagnoses happen every day.

Tens of thousands of people die each year from having a medical condition improperly diagnosed. There are a plethora of reasons why incorrect diagnoses happen, and they range from miscommunication to incorrect testing.

Despite the reason, a missed diagnosis usually ends up badly, either unnecessarily prolonging pain and suffering or causing chronic illness or death. Medical cost is another issue that only makes matters worse.

Because the stakes are high when your health is in question, it is worth looking at not only how doctors misdiagnose patients, but also what medical conditions doctors often miss and the consequences that may follow.

A misdiagnosis is when a patient is found to have a medical condition that does not exist. This could mean that there is an underlying condition that is missed or that no condition is present at all; the patient is healthy. Although diagnosing a medical condition when none exists is less common, it does happen from time to time.

How Does a Misdiagnosis Happen?

The reasons for a misdiagnosis are often due to symptoms being present that could make a doctor head down the wrong path. Sometimes doctors misdiagnose a medical condition that has similarities to the real one but is not actually present.

Medical students are trained to look at the possibilities from a most to least obvious perspective. They are told, “Think horses, not zebras.” This is considered a differential diagnosis, a method of considering possible medical conditions from most likely to least likely based on the symptoms of a patient. A main reason for this is so that the doctor can start treatment before the condition becomes worse.

It is also common for laboratory and machine-related diagnostic tests to miss a medical condition or show results for the wrong one. It could be a mistake in collecting or misinterpreting data, a faulty machine, or simply human error. A doctor ordering a wrong test is another possibility that is sure to send the diagnostic procedure down an inauspicious path.

It is important to remember that if a correct diagnosis follows one or more misdiagnoses, it still counts as a misdiagnosis. Too often treatment for a misdiagnosis begins immediately after the diagnosis was made, which in some cases could be harmful to the patient, not to mention have financial consequences.

Sometimes a misdiagnosis happens because the patient does not properly communicate the underlying symptoms or fails to tell the doctor all together. Occasionally, the symptoms of a medical condition are plainly difficult for a patient to interpret.

Most people are not qualified to make an accurate interpretation of a symptom, let alone explain it. A doctor needs to be cognizant of this fact and not rely solely on the explanation of a patient, which in many cases results in the failure to order tests to eliminate other possibilities.

Unfortunately, miscommunication happens, and doctors will often rely on a patient’s explanation of symptoms if those symptoms lead toward a simple and non-threatening illness that is easily treated.

How Many Medical Conditions Are Misdiagnosed Each Year?

According to an observational study published by the National Library of Medicine in 2014, data from three separate sources found that the rate of misdiagnoses in outpatient facilities each year in the United States was over five percent, which is roughly 12 million adults. Worse yet, the research estimated that approximately 50 percent of the misdiagnoses found carried with them the potential to be damaging.

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) claims that over the span of a lifetime, most people will have a minimum of one misdiagnosis. Moreover, it is not uncommon for these diagnostic errors to cause catastrophic results.

What Are Some Common Misdiagnosed Medical Conditions?

A recent article in JAMA Network Open listed the top 10 misdiagnosed medical conditions in outpatient clinics and academic medical centers. JAMA is a peer-reviewed medical journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that is published several times a year.

The article used data collected from different sources, such as patient safety reports and medical malpractice claims.

The research concluded that certain types of cancer, such as colorectal, lung, and breast, are the leading misdiagnosed medical conditions. Other conditions rounding off the list, again not surprising, are heart attack, stroke, and brain hemorrhage.

Although different research may yield different results, it is obvious that certain serious medical conditions can be easily misdiagnosed as something else or missed entirely. The consequences of not diagnosing cancer early is often catastrophic. Almost every person has known or heard of someone who did not survive cancer because it had been diagnosed too late or missed.

Most cancers, if not detected by an MRI, a blood test, an X-ray, or some other method, will end up in death. Cancers reaching a critical or higher stage are most times too difficult for a patient to recover from. Thus, early detection is critical. Unfortunately, early detection is frequently missed.

Heart disease is another medical condition that frequently goes unnoticed until it is too late. A blood clot, for instance, in a coronary artery that goes undetected will sooner than later block the passage of blood to the heart, keeping the heart from receiving the oxygen it needs via red blood cells. A heart attack is the result.

The same goes for a stroke. A blood clot that prevents blood from reaching the brain will prevent the brain from receiving its needed oxygen. Simple tests, such as an ultrasound, for instance, will quite often detect the clot, allowing a doctor to take action, commonly using blood thinners. A clot undiscovered equals disaster.

Going off the list, celiac disease, an immune system reaction to gluten, sometimes takes a person years to discover. Celiac disease causes inflammation in the small intestines, often causing illness that can go from mild pain to severe symptoms. Among other illnesses, it can lead to neurological disorders, infertility, and multiple sclerosis. A simple blood test, however, could detect it.

What Can Patients Do to Limit the Chances of a Misdiagnosis?

Although preventing a misdiagnosis is not always possible because of failed tests or inaccurate data, a patient can severely limit the possibilities of being subjected to one. The first step is to rely on your instincts or symptoms. Your body will often speak to you; do not ignore it.

Write down your symptoms and make sure to give as accurate a timeline as you can. When you visit your doctor or a medical facility, be honest and always ask questions. Do not allow your doctor to escape questions because you believe that the office is too busy with too many patients.

If a treatment for a specific illness is not working, make sure to follow up with your doctor. Again, ask questions. Do not automatically assume that the problem is the medication. It could be that the diagnosis was wrong.

When nothing is working, do not hesitate to get a second opinion. Doctors will sometimes recommend one, but do not wait in case the recommendation does not come. In a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic in 2017, up to 88 percent of patients going there for a second opinion leave with either a completely new diagnosis or one that is refined.

Most simply, take your symptoms seriously, and do not wait for an illness to pass. See a doctor right away and keep after an explanation or a course of action until you find the cause of the problem. Bear in mind that just because a symptom went away, it does not mean the condition is gone.

Patients must be persistent because their health depends on it.


Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Represent Patients Who Have Suffered from Medical Malpractice

A misdiagnosis could lead to serious injury or death. If you or a loved one has been injured because the negligent actions of a doctor or medical facility, you need a competent attorney. The Baltimore medical malpractice lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton will investigate your case and hold health care providers accountable. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

We have offices in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, allowing us to represent clients in Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.