Imagine you develop a terrible headache. Not your typical headache, but something like a migraine. Lights and sounds are painful; moving seems impossible. You suspect something is wrong and go to a doctor. After a quick assessment, your doctor diagnoses you with a migraine or a sinus infection and sends you home with a basic prescription. But that medication doesn’t help, and your condition worsens rapidly. You give it a few days because you trust that the doctor knows best. So how do you then find yourself in the hospital because you’ve suffered a brain bleed or a ruptured aneurysm? Your doctor assured you it was just a headache, and now you could be fighting for your life.
This scenario is likely a case of misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose. In many cases, the error is egregious enough to become medical malpractice.
When does misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose turn into medical malpractice? Doctors, of course, are human, and even the best of them make mistakes. These errors alone are not enough to constitute malpractice or grounds for litigation. Only when the error results in improper medical care, the right care too late, or no care at all, and the victim’s condition worsens. Under these circumstances, that is when it can turn into negligence. Physicians are always required to perform a differential diagnosis in any case, meaning they list several possible conditions and should rule out conditions even if it requires multiple testing.
It’s also important to note the difference between the two. Misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor simply comes up with the wrong diagnosis, which can happen without turning into malpractice. On the other hand, failure to diagnose occurs when a doctor is so far off that the patient suffered permanent damage or death. Applicable conditions are preventable with the right care but often fatal without it (e.g., brain damage, cancer, heart disease, some sexually transmitted diseases). A delayed diagnosis can produce similar results.
Proving malpractice is complicated and requires proof of three things: an established doctor-patient relationship, actual negligence, and preventable/further harm or death due to the negligence.
Let’s go back to your headache scenario. How can you decide if it really is just a headache or if it warrants more serious treatment? There are many symptoms that, paired with a headache, could be a sign to get help. These include, but are not limited to:
- Intense pain that comes on very suddenly (can also be signs of an aneurysm)
- Fever higher than 102 degrees
- Nausea, vomiting, nosebleed, fainting
- Blurred vision or dizziness
- Night sweats or pain that awakens you
- Any head contusion or swelling
Of particular concern with terrible headaches is the possibility of a stroke. Most strokes happen because the brain is cut off from blood flow. If someone’s face or body is drooping on one side, they can’t raise their arms over their head, and their speech is slurred, they need to get medical attention immediately.
Patient Advocacy Can Help Avoid Medical Malpractice
You can avoid being a victim of medical malpractice by being proactive about your health. Patients must advocate for themselves and not rely strictly on physicians. If you visit a doctor for a bad headache and believe it is severe, you have the right to speak up and ask for different tests and/or second opinions. Make sure you bring in a complete medical history since time with the doctor will probably be limited. Bring a friend or family member to support you, and in some states, you may be able to record the appointment. After all, there are over 200 types of headaches, and many physicians do not specialize in headaches. So, unfortunately, there tend to be many incorrect diagnoses.
If despite your best efforts, you suffer an injury due to your physician’s failure to diagnose, it’s important to find an attorney experienced in medical malpractice. The team of accomplished injury lawyers at D’Arcy Johnson Day can guide you through the complicated medical malpractice process and help you find the best possible outcome. For a free consultation or more information, give us a call at 866-327-2952, or contact us online.
As a partner with D'Arcy Johnson Day, Andrew D'Arcy has been involved in some of the nation’s most high-profile cases and investigations. His practice includes serious automobile accidents, medical malpractice, wrongful death and product defect cases. Andrew has been personally responsible for numerous multi-million dollar settlements and verdicts on behalf of his clients. He has been recognized by his peers as an "AV" rated attorney, the highest possible rating given by Martindale-Hubbell publication. Andrew has been named a "Super Lawyer" by New Jersey Monthly magazine each year consistently since 2013.