Medical Negligence - Misdiagnosis vs Delayed diagnosis
4th February 2021
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Although the vast majority of medical staff diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatment correctly in accordance with set professional standards, there are instances when unfortunately mistakes do occur and sadly sometimes with serious or devastating consequences.

A large number of medical negligence claims in the UK are a result of diagnostic errors. When a medical professional fails to identify or diagnose symptoms of an illness or health condition this can lead to incorrect treatment, delayed treatment, or death, it can have a devastating impact on the patient and their loved ones. However, diagnostic errors do not automatically qualify as medical negligence. Instead, a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis must be avoidable before it becomes negligent treatment.

When misdiagnosis occurs, a patient will receive medical care for an injury or illness they do not have. In this case, the patient may undergo unnecessary and expensive medical procedures, causing further pain and suffering, and possibly leading to a decline in the overall health of the patient. Misdiagnosis can also lead to death, especially if the patient never received proper treatment for the illness or injury they suffered.

What is Delayed Diagnosis?

Delayed diagnosis, also known as late diagnosis, occurs when a patient’s condition is initially missed by a medical professional, only diagnosing the condition or illness at a more advance stage. The healthcare professional gives the right diagnosis, but only after significant delay. In the interim, however, the patient will likely have received unnecessary treatment, suffered pain, suffering and incurred medical costs. Most victims of delayed diagnosis hardly realise they have grounds for a medical negligence claim since their doctor eventually gives the correct diagnosis.

Delayed diagnosis can negatively impact the overall health of the patient, and even lead to death.

Some of the most common examples of delayed diagnosis include:

  • Minimizing patient symptoms
  • Failing to monitor vital changes
  • Failing to refer patient for tests
  • Failing to consider differential diagnosis
  • Failing to carefully listen to a patient’s complaint
  • Performing a procedure before considering contraindications

For a patient’s delayed diagnosis claim to be valid, that delay must have had a negative impact on the health of the patient and be a result of negligent treatment.

Where does a delay in medical diagnosis usually take place?

Although hospitals dispense the right advice and beneficial treatment the majority of the time, there are instances where they get it wrong.

A large number of cases of delayed diagnosis taken place in A&E departments. A&E departments are known for being extremely busy places. Human error is common, and doctors have been known to discharge patients from hospital with serious illnesses, infections and broken bones. If there is a delay in treating someone whose condition could worsen rapidly, the doctor or nurse could be deemed negligent for breaching the duty of care they have for patients.

Another example of where a delay in diagnosis is during child birth. For example, if a mother was due to give birth but needed an emergency C-section and this wasn’t recognised by medical staff in a timely manner, this could be identified as a delay in diagnosis.

GPs can also be responsible for delayed diagnosis if they fail to identify symptoms of a serious medical condition, illness or infection, leaving the condition untreated, and as a result the GP has been negligent. This is common with cancer patients, as symptoms can be overlooked or assumed to be an alternative illness.

Medical professionals owe a duty of care to their patients to treat them to a reasonable standard of competence. If there is a misdiagnosis or improper treatment is given the patient may be able to claim personal injury compensation for misdiagnosis.

Proving Medical Negligence

The UK medical negligence law does not hold medical practitioners responsible for all errors in diagnosis. Instead, patients are expected to prove three things in order to establish medical negligence based on diagnostic error:

  1. Existence of a doctor-patient relationship
  2. Medical practitioner was negligent
  3. The negligence directly caused the patient’s injury

Doctor-Patient Relationship and Duty of Care

This requirement is relatively simple. When a doctor examines a patient or provides treatment, a doctor-patient relationship is generally established. No written contract is necessary. Doctors are required to provide reasonably competent care any time they act in their capacity as doctors, including recognising and properly diagnosing potential health problems.

Was the Medical Practitioner Negligent?

Doctors act negligently when they fail to provide the quality of care that other reasonably competent doctors would have provided under similar circumstances. It is the patient’s burden of proving what quality of care other reasonably competent doctors would have provided in similar circumstances.

When pursuing a Medical Negligence claim, your solicitor will obtain the opinion of an independent doctor/medical expert that has experience with the type of medical problem at issue in the case. The medical expert will prepare a report on the patient’s treatment and the resulting medical condition. The medical expert will be asked to comment on whether the conduct of the treating doctor failed to meet that standard of care required of a competent doctor.

Did the Negligence Cause the Patient’s Injury/Harm?

In order to be successful in a claim for negligence against a healthcare professional based on misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, patients must prove that their doctor’ negligence caused foreseeable harm. The harm can take many forms, including pain and suffering, cost of medical bills, loss of earning capacity, and loss of the ability to enjoy life’s pleasures in the same way as prior to the harm.

The critical issue is whether the injury/harm was caused by the error in diagnosis. It is not enough to merely show that injury/harm occurred after a doctor was negligent.

For example, assume that a patient visits a doctor complaining of headaches. The doctor diagnoses the patient with a minor problem when, in reality, brain cancer was causing the headaches. After two months, the patient dies from the cancer. Assume further that even if the doctor had immediately found the cancer, the patient would have died at approximately the same time because no effective treatment has been found for that type of cancer under current accepted medical practices. In this scenario, the doctor would not be liable for medical negligence. Although the doctor might have acted negligently, the negligence did not cause the patient’s death. The death would have occurred even if the doctor had found the cancer immediately.

On the other hand, assume that in the above example, the patient’s death could have been delayed by six months with proper treatment. In that case, the doctor could be liable for medical negligence because the patient was harmed by the doctor’s negligence when the patient’s life was cut short by six months.

Medical Negligence Claims – Free Initial Consultation

If you have further questions or concerns about making a medical negligence claim, you can call our team of Specialist Medical Negligence Solicitors on 0161 399 1231.


About the Author

Emma P

Member since: 10th September 2020

I am a senior solicitor at Aston Knight Solicitors. I specialise in serious personal injury cases and have a special interest in catastrophic injury claims

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