Delayed or missed medical diagnosis affect millions each year

Earlier this year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that nearly one in 20-or approximately 12 million American adults-is "affected by diagnosis errors each year." Unfortunately, many of these errors produce "avoidable" disabilities or death. Diagnostic errors are divided into the following three categories: (1) where a correct diagnosis was delayed; (2) where the diagnosis was wrong; and (3) where the diagnosis was missed altogether. The Wall Street Journal adds that diagnostic errors are more common than other types of medical mistakes and, indeed, are the leading cause of medical negligence lawsuits in the United States. Diagnostic errors often occur as a result of oversights by hospitals and physicians.

This year, the Urban Institute released a report which observed that medical diagnostic errors are far too common in the United States. Unfortunately, however, diagnostic mistakes have not been given the serious attention they deserve. A missed or delayed diagnosis is often made in regard to common diseases rather than in instances where physicians are confronted with some rare disease or condition. Mistakes in making a diagnosis can occur in hospitals, a primary care physician's office, and in medical clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Frequently, a missed or delayed diagnosis occurs in the testing phase due to a physician's failure to order, report or follow-up on lab results.

The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research observes that various studies strongly suggest that thousands of hospitalized patients die every year due to diagnostic errors. Better communication between physicians in our hospitals is said to be absolutely essential to preventing missed or delayed medical diagnostic errors.

The Zamora case

The recently decided New Mexico case of Zamora v. St. Vincent Hospital illustrates a situation where a delayed medical diagnosis was at issue. There, a patient brought a negligence action against a hospital alleging injury due to a clerical failure by the hospital to forward a radiologist's report to a surgeon. The plaintiff had presented to the emergency room with abdominal pain and was examined by an ER physician and a surgeon. The initial diagnosis was diverticulitis following a scan by a radiologist. The plaintiff was thereafter discharged from the ER. The next day, the radiologist dictated his report which indicated that cancer might be a consideration.

Due to an administrative error, the hospital never forwarded the radiologist's report to the surgeon. As a result, the surgeon did not contact the plaintiff raising the possibility of his having cancer and asking him to return for more testing. Several months later, the plaintiff was finally diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer.

In Zamora, the trial court granted a summary judgment in favor of the hospital and the plaintiff appealed. The Supreme Court of New Mexico disagreed with the trial court's decision and found that the plaintiff's expert affidavits established that disputed issues of fact existed concerning the hospital's negligence. In the course of its decision, the court observed that even laypeople understand that a "radiologist who processes X-rays needs to communicate the results to the treating physician." Since issues clearly existed as to the hospital's negligence in failing to forward the radiologist's report to the surgeon, the decision was remanded for a trial on the merits.

Seeking compensation

No one should be the uncompensated victim of medical negligence. If you or a loved one has been injured due to a delayed or missed diagnosis, you should contact a New Mexico attorney experienced in handling medical malpractice cases.