Medical Malpractice: Failure to diagnose / treat Cancer

Cancer deserves a Capital C. It’s scary – life changing and in millions of Americans, life ending.

Do you know someone who was diagnosed with cancer and beat it? I do. My Mom had Melanoma AND lung cancer and because of good care, both were diagnosed early, treated and she has reached the ten year survival mark on both. It’s a miracle really.

But many of our clients can’t share that kind of success story. Many of our clients have the rather nightmarish scenario where someone missed the cancer in it’s early and treatable stages, only to be told upon delayed diagnosis, little can be done.

Our office has seen so many failure to diagnose cancer cases, we can barely count them, but what seems to be a thread of truth that runs among all of them is FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE.

For example

  • images (CT, X-ray) reveal a possible tumor but doctor doesn’t order follow up tests so tumor goes untreated
  • radiologist recommends specific follow up testing because of abnormal finding, but no one else reads the report, or shares the concern with patient – or provides any follow up care so tumors go untreated
  • radiologist recommends specific follow up but doesn’t call Emergency Room doctor who has already discharged the patient – so no follow up is provided
  • radiologist misses the abnormal findings and doctors send patient home
  • radiologist recommends follow up but emergency room doctor thinks it is job of primary care doctor, and primary care doctor thinks if it was bad the emergency room would have called
  • doctor reads radiology findings but insists the mass that was seen is not cancer, but something else (cyst, pneumonia)
  • doctor makes note in chart to request images and review – and fails to do them

NOW – what all of these scenerios have in common is LACK OF COMMUNICATION WITH PATIENT.

What we don’t see is someone saying to the patient – “Hey, Radiologist sees something scary.” Because if these five words had been uttered, we can all agree there would be no delay in diagnosis. The patient would move mountains to get further tests, studies and answers STAT. Why? Because it doesn’t take a Doctorate in Medicine to know that the earlier to diagnose cancer, the higher your chance of survival AND the better chance of successful treatment.

SO WHY don’t doctors utter these scary words to patients? I have asked some doctors that over the years, and received a number of answers (all of which I am paraphrasing):

  • “I didn’t know the radiologist saw that. He didn’t call me and I didn’t look at the report. I didn’t know it was my job to do that.”
  • “I didn’t want to scare the patient.”
  • “I didn’t think it was cancer.”
  • “I though conservative approach was better – wait and see.”
  • “I compared those images to old images and didn’t see much change so I assumed it wasn’t cancer.”

Lots of reasons provided, not one of which I have felt was totally sufficient.

So why even write about this issue? Doctors don’t read attorney blogs – so why even bring it up?

Well – to empower patients. To put the communications and control into the hands of the people who need care.

So while I don’t think all failure to diagnose cancer cases are avoidable – I do know that if clients were more proactive, their doctors would be as well.

And so, here is some practical advice when it comes to healthcare in America:

  1. Always get a second opinion. Yes, even when insurance won’t pay for it.
  2. When you get an X-ray or MRI or CT done, ask for a copy of the images on DISC AND ask for a copy of the report. Don’t wait. Most hospitals can copy these records and images on disc for you within 10 minutes while you wait.
  3. When you get reports, READ THEM. Anything suspicious? Recommend follow up?
  4. Take those reports and images with you to your next PCP or specialist appointment, ask them to review with you and discuss plan of care.
  5. ASK QUESTIONS.
  6. GOOGLE IT. I know Doctors hate it when patients come in and say “I looked it up online and am concerned about DO-RE-ME” but guess what, I’m not concerned about a doctor’s ego being bruised. I am concerned about your health. Clients tell me all the time they looked up similar cases online and they found a jury did something — and is their case the same? I often explain how it’s different, am glad to have an engaged client – and we move on.

Questions? Call me or email me – lellerman@frithlawfirm.com

Lauren Ellerman

Lauren Ellerman

In 2011, Lauren Ellerman was named "Young Lawyer of the Year" by the Roanoke Bar Association for her work in the community. To speak with Lauren about your personal injury case, contact her at lellerman@frithlawfirm.com.