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Misdiagnosis vs. Delayed Diagnosis

Misdiagnosis vs. Delayed Diagnosis

Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis are two of the most common forms of medical malpractice. Some reports suggest that as many as 40% of medical malpractice cases involve a misdiagnosis or delay in diagnosis. These issues are a clear patient safety problem.

Misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor diagnoses the patient with the wrong illness. For example, a doctor might improperly conclude that a patient has a muscle strain in his chest or back, when in reality the patient is suffering a heart attack. On the other hand, a delayed diagnosis occurs when the correct diagnosis is given but with a significant delay that adversely affects the patient. Delayed diagnoses are a common problem, and often occur when a doctor fails to timely order tests such as lab work, colonoscopies or breast imaging.

These two forms of medical errors are closely related, and sometimes a patient can suffer from both: an original misdiagnosis causes a delay in the correct diagnosis, which then forces the patient to undergo additional or otherwise unnecessary treatment.


Misdiagnosis can lead to serious health problems not only because patients are not being treated for the illness they actually have, but also because they may be treated for an illness they do not have. Often these unnecessary treatments can be severe and cause significant suffering. When this occurs patients can often seek legal help to recover for the additional harm that has been suffered by the unsuspecting patient. In these cases, the patient can generally seek damages for the amount of money spent on unnecessary medical care and the unnecessary pain, suffering, stress, and anxiety experienced as a result of this kind of malpractice.

Delayed Diagnosis

Delayed diagnosis may be the most common diagnostic error made by medical professionals. It is hard to underestimate the potential consequences of these mistakes. Failure to receive timely treatment can be the difference between life and death, particularly when conditions like cancer are involved. It goes without saying that with cancer, time is of the essence.

Often medical malpractice patients affected by a delayed diagnosis are not aware of the situation. Since the doctor may eventually find the problem, some patients may be under the mistaken assumption that the doctor is not legally accountable for the malpractice. However, the law recognizes that delays in diagnosis can be just as damaging as the failure to diagnose.

How to Ensure Accountability

In all potential legal actions stemming from these situations, the key factor is proving a doctor's negligence. In terms of misdiagnosis, a patient would have to prove that a doctor in a similar specialty, under similar circumstances, would not have misdiagnosed the patient's disease or illness. Similarly, in delayed diagnosis cases, the patient must show that a "reasonable doctor" would have made the diagnosis sooner, and that an earlier diagnosis would have prevented harm.

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