Does a Delayed Diagnosis Constitute a Wrongful Death?

A significant percentage of medical malpractice wrongful death claims arise from a delayed diagnosis of a patient’s injury, illness or medical condition. When a physician’s diagnosis error involves no treatment, or an incorrect or delayed treatment, the condition of the patient can become significantly worse and often lead to death. However, an error in diagnosing is not always enough cause to win a successful medical malpractice lawsuit.

Proving Medical Malpractice

State tort law does not create an environment to hold health care providers legally responsible for any diagnostic error. Alternatively, it is up to the patient, the patient’s family or a legal representative to prove three specific elements of truth to receive compensation in a medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit involving a delayed diagnosis. These elements include:

  • A relationship exists between the health care provider and the patient
  • The health care provider was negligent in their actions, meaning they did not provide the proper treatment in a competent manner using reasonable skill
  • The negligence of the health care provider cost the patient’s actual injury leading to death

The last two elements – the health care provider was negligent and that their negligence harmed the patient – substantiate medical malpractice.

Proving Negligence

Simply delaying diagnosis is usually not adequate evidence to prove negligence. Many experienced physicians can still make a diagnostic error while using reasonable care. Proving negligence involves determining whether the diagnosing physician acted competently. Proving that in a medical malpractice claim for an out-of-court settlement, or in front of a jury at trial can be challenging. This is why many surviving family members will obtain the services of an attorney for a wrongful death case.

Wrongful Death Due to Delayed Diagnosis The attorney will hire expert witnesses to evaluate the actions of the physician to determine the level of competency throughout the diagnostic process. This often involves evaluating the exact “differential” diagnosis method used by the physician in making a determination for care or treatment. A differential diagnosis involves a systemic approach used by physicians to accurately identify a condition or disease. An expert witness can determine the accuracy of the diagnosis, to determine if the action by the physician was in error.

Delaying a proper diagnosis of major medical conditions can often complicate the available treatments. Often times, patients are subjected to severe procedures including radiation and chemotherapy or additional surgeries, which might not have been necessary if the diagnosis had been properly made in a timely manner. Sometimes, the patient dies from the condition because of the delayed diagnosis.

There are other factors involved in a delayed diagnosis then simply not reaching the right conclusion based on performing tests. These other factors include:

  • Ignoring all the symptoms and risk factors of the patient
  • Failing to order extensive diagnostic tests
  • Misreading mammograms and/or misinterpreting test results
  • Failing to share test results with the patient, other physicians and doctors

Unacceptable Medical Standard of Care

The medical world uses a standard of care to measure the conduct of doctors and other health care providers when treating patients. Any physician that uses unacceptable medical standards of care can be held legally liable for medical malpractice. Personal injury lawyers that specialize in medical malpractice cases use the medical standard of care as a measuring tool to determine if the doctor considered all health conditions in a differential diagnosis.

If the doctor is found to have breached the medical standard of care, based on what any reasonably competent physician would have provided, they can be held legally responsible in a lawsuit or claim.

In addition to the doctor, a hospital, other medical staff or faulty diagnostic equipment can be responsible for the death. Sometimes, urgent care and hospital emergency room requirements, procedures and protocols may impede the doctor’s ability to perform an accurate diagnosis.

To ensure adequate recompense for all the surviving members filing a wrongful death lawsuit, an attorney working on their behalf will file suit against all responsible parties including doctors, hospitals, medical facilities and even medical equipment manufacturers to obtain adequate financial compensation for the client.