Medical Malpractice: Misdiagnosis versus Delayed Diagnosis


Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis are two of the most common (and damaging) forms of medical malpractice. Some reports suggest that as many as 40% of medical malpractice cases involve a misdiagnosis or delay in diagnosis.  These issues are a clear patient safety problem.

Misdiagnosis occurs when a doctor diagnoses the patient with the wrong illness.  For example, a doctor might improperly conclude that a patient has a muscle strain in his chest or back, when in reality the patient is suffering a heart attack.  On the other hand, a delayed diagnosis occurs when the correct diagnosis is given but with a significant delay that adversely affects the patient.  Delayed diagnoses are a common problem, and often occur when a doctor fails to timely order tests such as lab work, colonoscopies or breast imaging studies.

prescription medicationThese two forms of medical errors are closely related, and sometimes a patient can suffer from both: an original misdiagnosis causes a delay in the correct diagnosis, which then forces the patient to undergo additional or otherwise unnecessary treatment.


Misdiagnosis can lead to serious health problems not only because patients are not being treated for the illness they actually have, but also because they may be treated for an illness they do not have.  Often these unnecessary treatments can be severe and cause significant suffering.  When this occurs patients can often seek legal help to recover for the additional harm that has been suffered by the unsuspecting patient.  In these cases, the patient can generally seek damages for the amount of money spent on unnecessary medical care and the unnecessary pain, suffering, stress, and anxiety experienced as a result of this kind of malpractice.

For example, I am currently working on a case where an overzealous doctor placed in excess of 30 completely unnecessary pancreatic duct stents – over a period of 30 months – in a patient for a condition that the patient never had. As a result of the doctor’s misdiagnosis, the patient’s underlying condition (a gastric erosion) was allowed to worsen, caused severe involuntary anorexia, and brought her to the edge of death until a different doctor intervened and uncovered the ongoing misdiagnosis.

Delayed Diagnosis

Delayed diagnosis may be the most common diagnostic error made by medical professionals.  It is hard to underestimate the potential consequences of these mistakes.  Failure to receive timely treatment can be the difference between life and death, particularly when conditions like cancer are involved.  It goes without saying that with cancer, time is of the essence.  A previous post discussed a situation like this where a Nassau County physician’s assistant pretended to be a doctor and failed to diagnose his patient with prostate cancer.  That patient now suffers severe physical and emotional pain from the spreading cancer that is too advanced for medical treatment. The delay in diagnosis of cancer in that case was effectively a death sentence.

Often medical malpractice patients affected by a delayed diagnosis are not aware of the situation.  Since the doctor may eventually find the problem, some patients may be under the mistaken assumption that the doctor is not legal accountability for the malpractice.  However, the law recognizes that delays in diagnosis can be just as damaging as the failure to diagnose.

How to Ensure Accountability

In all potential legal actions stemming from these situations, the key factor is proving a doctor’s negligence.  In terms of misdiagnosis, a patient would have to prove that a doctor in a similar specialty, under similar circumstances, would not have misdiagnosed the patient’s disease or illness.  Similarly, in delayed diagnosis cases, the patient must show that a “reasonable doctor” would have made the diagnosis sooner, and that an earlier diagnosis would have prevented harm.

A crucial issue in all of these cases is proving the exact harm that was caused by the malpractice. Specifically, that the misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis caused the patient harm above and beyond the inevitable harm from the underlying medical condition.  Experienced medical malpractice lawyers can explain how these issues can be proven in your particular case.

If you are in a situation where you have been misdiagnosed or face a delayed diagnosis, you should contact a medical malpractice attorney in your area as soon as possible.


See Our Related Blog Posts:

Empowering Patients: Are You Getting the Medical Information You Need?

Nassau University Medical Center Allows Physician’s Assistant to Hold Himself Out as a Doctor for Years – Fails to Diagnose Patient with Cancer

(Photo Courtesy of Robert S. Donovan)

Leave a Comment

Skip to toolbar