Cancer misdiagnosis occurs when a patient’s cancer status is diagnosed incorrectly. This means that a patient with cancer is not diagnosed with cancer, or a patient without cancer is diagnosed with cancer. In any case, cancer misdiagnosis can have devastating consequences for the patient. For cancer patients, a cancer misdiagnosis may mean a missed treatment opportunity. Those who are falsely diagnosed with cancer may undergo life-changing cancer treatments, such as loss of an organ that was removed under the false conclusion that it contained cancer.
Signs of Cancer Misdiagnosis
When cancer misdiagnosis occurs, the following warning signs may be present:
- The patient receives treatment for the diagnosed condition, but the condition does not improve
- The patient’s treatment plan does not logically or medically coincide with the symptoms experienced
- A cancer diagnosis and treatment plan is based on the results of a single test
- The doctor fails to investigate certain symptoms using the types of testing and procedures deemed medically appropriate
- The doctor fails to answer the patient’s questions, due to neglect or lack of knowledge
- Evidence of miscommunication between medical professionals within a department, office, or separate companies
Reasons for Cancer Misdiagnosis
Cancer misdiagnosis can occur at any stage of the cancer diagnosis process, from the initial onset of the patient’s symptoms to the administration of treatment. Cancer misdiagnosis may occur as a direct result of human error, such as doctor negligence. Cancer misdiagnosis may also be unavoidable, as seen in cases where a cancer fails to display symptoms or displays symptoms that strongly indicate another condition. A significant contributor to cancer misdiagnosis is the generally misunderstood nature of cancer.
Cancer misdiagnosis may be directly caused by human error. In many cases, human error can take the form of negligence from a treating doctor or other party responsible for the cancer diagnosis. Cancer patients may also contribute to cancer misdiagnosis. For example, a doctor may see no external indications of cancer. In these cases, the doctor cannot identify and investigate cancer symptoms unless the patient notices and discusses them with the doctor.
Faulty Cancer Testing
An unfortunate by-product of cancer testing is the occurrence of false results. These are due to imperfections in the testing process. False negatives occur when a cancer test indicates a lack of cancer in a patient who has cancer. False positives occur when a cancer test indicates cancer in a patient who does not have cancer. Due to potential faults in cancer testing, doctors are encouraged to re-test patients and perform other forms of cancer testing to validate results.
Lack of Knowledge
Despite decades of research and millions of dollars spent each year on cancer research, many aspects of cancer remain unknown. This general lack of knowledge in the medical community may significantly contribute to cancer misdiagnosis. Unlike many medical conditions, cancer does not always take a specific form or exhibit certain symptoms. Even in cases where the best medical attention and most effective resources are used, cancer misdiagnosis may still occur.
Medical Negligence in Cancer Misdiagnosis
Medical negligence is a topic of debate in the realm of cancer misdiagnosis. Medical negligence occurs when a patient is treated carelessly or given inadequate attention or care during the diagnosis or treatment process. When medical negligence is the cause of a patient’s cancer misdiagnosis, the patient may be able to file a cancer misdiagnosis lawsuit against the doctor or other responsible party.
Medical negligence may lead to cancer misdiagnosis when a medical professional:
- Fails to recognize, identify, or investigate evident cancer symptoms
- Fails to order cancer testing for symptoms and indications that suggest a need for that particular type of testing
- Inappropriately or inadequately performs cancer testing, such as an X-ray or a tissue sample biopsy
- Fails to properly read or interpret testing results, such as a laboratory’s biopsy results
- Fails to refer the patient to a more specialized medical professional when needed
- Fails to adequately follow-up with the patient to assess treatment results and progress
Prevalence of Cancer Misdiagnosis
The National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC) conducted a joint study with medical diagnosis service Best Doctors to observe how doctors perceive the prevalence of cancer misdiagnosis. According to the survey, more than 60 percent of participating doctors believed that cancer misdiagnosis occurs at a rate of zero to 10 percent. This estimate varies significantly from the journal BMJ Quality and Safety’s estimate of 28 percent. When asked why cancer misdiagnosis most commonly occurs, the majority of surveyed doctors believed that the most common cause is inadequate information in medical information systems.
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