If you have ever had an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan to diagnose a health problem you have been experiencing, you have probably sighed in relief when the report came back showing no serious problems. You may not have gotten the answers you were looking for—but at least you didn’t get the answer you were fearing: a malignant tumor or other serious condition.
Most people are so relieved to hear that the radiologist reviewing their scans found nothing seriously wrong that they don’t inquire further. Their doctor continues to treat them (or discontinue a treatment) based on the radiology report, and all is well. Occasionally, though, the problem persists or worsens, requiring follow up testing. More often than you might imagine, that follow-up testing reveals very bad news indeed—the existence of a problem that could have, and should have, been identified during the original testing.
Depending on the nature of the problem, the delayed or missed diagnosis may constitute medical malpractice and may have cost valuable treatment time or made a once treatable problem incurable. How do these serious radiology mistakes happen, and what is your recourse if you have been the victim of one?
A 2018 report issued by a medical malpractice insurer analyzed over 10,000 closed claims between 2013 and 2017. The report found that 15% of the claims reviewed involved radiologists, a figure that was second only to the percentage of general medical providers with malpractice claims against them.
Of radiology malpractice claims involving diagnosis, 80% stemmed from the misinterpretation of clinical tests. Further, over 80% of the diagnosis-related claims in radiology involved either serious injury or death. The most common radiology malpractice claim was for missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis of cancer. Of these cancer cases, the most common types included breast, lung, pancreatic, and ovarian cancers.
Failure to detect cancer may be the most common cause of medical malpractice lawsuits against radiologists, but radiologists may also fail to properly identify other conditions. According to a 2013 study in Radiology, non-spinal fractures, spinal fractures, and vascular disease were also frequently missed by radiologists, leading to malpractice claims. Some malpractice claims also stemmed from the radiologist’s failure to adequately communicate findings or to recommend further testing when it was warranted.
The same study found that 31% of the radiologists who participated had been sued for malpractice during their careers. That is almost one in three, and doesn’t account for those cases in which a radiologist makes an error but is not sued! Radiologists are trained physicians; how are so many doctors making such serious errors?
There are a number of reasons a radiologist might make a mistake that rises to the level of medical malpractice. What we mean when we say that is that they missed evidence of a problem that a reasonable, prudent radiologist in similar circumstances would not have missed.
Probably the most common type of mistake is an error in perception: the abnormality is present on the X-ray or scan, but the radiologist for some reason does not see it. It is worth noting that a disproportionate number of malpractice cases against radiologists are filed against radiologist who review a relatively low number of tests. That suggests, unsurprisingly, that the less frequently a doctor reviews a certain type of test, the more likely they are to fail to detect an abnormality they should have seen.
Another type of error is that of training or knowledge. Either the test is not properly performed, or the radiologist has not received the training needed to properly interpret it. They may see the abnormality, but identify it as something innocuous. Training errors frequently result in radiologist failing to order follow-up testing that would have clearly identified the problem.
A third error, unrelated to diagnosis, is the medication error. Perhaps surprisingly, medication errors resulting in harm are relatively frequent in radiology: according to a Washington Post article, perhaps seven times as frequent as in hospitals overall. The most common medication errors were patients getting the wrong dose of a drug, the wrong drug, or incorrect administration of a drug.
A fourth type of radiology error is often particularly devastating: the communication error. With a communication error, the test may have been performed flawlessly, the result reviewed accurately by an experienced doctor, and the abnormality identified. The problem stems from a simple breakdown in communication that led to a failure to properly treat the condition. While radiologists rarely communicate directly with patients, they must effectively communicate their findings to the physician who relies on those results to make treatment decisions.
Communication can fail because of a small, random-seeming error like a failure to click “send” on a report. But that tiny mistake can have a devastating impact on the patient whose life and treatment are altered by it.
If your radiologist committed a mistake that a reasonable radiologist would have avoided, and you suffered serious harm as a result, your chances of success in a lawsuit are good, especially relative to other types of malpractice.
Most radiology malpractice cases in the United States—about four out of five—result in a settlement for the injured patient. The remainder go to trial, and about half of those result in a judgment for the patient. Why are radiology malpractice cases likely to be successful? Damages are often serious, and the mistake made by the radiologist frequently easy to identify.
Of course, it is up to an experienced medical malpractice attorney in any case to “connect the dots” and create a compelling narrative supported by evidence. If you were injured by a radiologist’s error, we invite you to contact Huegli Fraser to learn about our experience with radiology malpractice cases and how we can help in your case.
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.
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