Is Failure to Diagnose Lyme Disease Medical Malpractice?
Is failure to diagnose Lyme disease medical malpractice? Depending on the circumstances, quite possibly.
Medical malpractice requires four elements: a duty, breach of that duty, injury, and damages. The first element, professional duty owed to a patient, exists in any doctor-patient relationship. If a doctor fails to diagnose a condition when a reasonable physician in similar circumstances would have, he or she has breached that duty. Breaching one's professional duty, in and of itself, is not medical malpractice. The patient must be injured by the breach, and must suffer damages.
How might someone be injured by a failure to diagnose Lyme disease? Badly enough that they could become chronically ill with debilitating illnesses including cardiac disease, arthritis, and neurological disorders. Because these outcomes can have a global impact on the lives of those suffering with them, and because they could possibly be prevented or mitigated with proper, timely treatment, failure to diagnose Lyme disease can cause serious, lasting harm.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness first identified near Lyme, Connecticut, in the early 1980s. When a victim is bitten by a tick, they may contract a bacterial infection which will need to be promptly treated with the correct course of antibiotics. The bacterium that causes Lyme disease is called a spirochete. Symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, general fatigue, chills, rash, headache, swollen glands, and other flu-like symptoms. Symptoms range from mild to severe.
The Lyme disease rash has a characteristic "bulls-eye" appearance. While not all victims of Lyme disease develop this rash, it is a hallmark of the disease. If a patient reports this rash to a doctor, or mentions having been bitten by a tick, a reasonable doctor should immediately evaluate for Lyme disease. Because some ticks are very small, a patient may not be aware that they were bitten, but if a patient reports symptoms consistent with Lyme, a doctor should inquire about the possibility.
Early diagnosis may be made on the basis of the presence of the bulls-eye rash and other symptoms. Blood tests are not generally reliable at the onset of the disease, but may show antibodies after about a month or more. However, delaying treatment if Lyme is suspected is unwise.
Lyme disease can usually be cured in the early stages with antibiotics. A minority of patients may continue to have what is called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome even after the bacterial infection is resolved.
What Happens if Lyme Disease is Not Treated?
If Lyme disease goes undiagnosed and untreated, the rash (if any) will go away in about a month. However, that doesn't mean the disease has resolved. In the ensuing weeks and months, patients may continue to experience fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms. Many patients have reported that doctors told them that there was no explanation for their symptoms.
However, in its later stages, Lyme disease can cause inflammation of the heart muscle, leading to arrhythmia and even heart failure. Neurological symptoms may also appear, including Bell's palsy, which involves paralysis of facial muscles; peripheral neuropathy, and even meningitis.
Lyme disease was first recognized when a group of children near Lyme, Connecticut developed rheumatoid arthritis-type symptoms, and those symptoms continue to be a symptom of chronic Lyme disease. Knees are commonly affected, and the arthritis may only affect a few joints rather than the whole body. Arthritis due to Lyme disease appears similar to other forms of inflammatory arthritis.
Unsurprisingly, high rates of depression and anxiety have been identified in patients with chronic Lyme disease. It is unclear whether the depression and anxiety are a function of the infection or are caused by living with the long-term debilitating symptoms of the infection. What is known is that some doctors attribute physical symptoms of Lyme disease to patients' mental health issues, instead of the other way around.
If Your Doctor Failed to Diagnose Your Lyme Disease
If your doctor failed to diagnose your Lyme disease and your symptoms progressed, you may have experienced months or even years of debilitating illness. If, like many people with undiagnosed Lyme, you racked up significant medical bills or lost income, you have financial damages as well as physical injury. It is worth consulting with an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can help you evaluate whether your doctor's conduct rises to the level of medical malpractice.
An ethical medical malpractice attorney will be able to help you determine whether it is worth pursuing legal action, and will not encourage you to file a claim unless there is a reasonable likelihood of success. Our firm handles more medical malpractice cases than any law firm in Oregon. If you have questions about whether your doctor's failure to timely diagnose and treat your Lyme disease constitutes medical malpractice, we invite you to contact us for a free initial consultation. We look forward to answering your questions.
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The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.