Medical Errors in the Lab: When Results are Wrong
Longtime watchers of Grey’s Anatomy will remember the episode in which a young doctor ordered lab tests run for two patients, of which she was one. One test came back showing anemia; the other, an aggressive brain tumor. Unfortunately, the results got switched, with the doctor initially believing she had anemia, when she was in fact seriously ill; the other patient thought she had cancer and spent tens of thousands of dollars on further testing, when all she needed was an iron supplement.
In real life, most laboratory errors are not the stuff of high drama. But they can constitute medical malpractice. While not every lab error is the result of negligence, those that are can have serious, even life-threatening results.
Understanding Laboratory Malpractice
Nearly everyone who receives medical care has had a blood, urine, tissue, or other sample sent to a clinical laboratory. Having lab tests run may be a part of a routine physical, or an effort to diagnose the source of troubling symptoms, direct treatment of a known condition, or determine how well a treatment is working. Laboratory results have significant influence in creating a “road map” for care—and if the information used to make the map is wrong, the results can be disastrous.
Medical laboratory malpractice occurs when a laboratory or lab worker violates applicable standards of care, leading to a mistake that harms a patient, who suffers damages. Those damages can range from the cost of corrective care to the loss of life.
Laboratory errors can happen in a number of ways, including:
- Taking a sample from a patient that is insufficient
- Taking a sample incorrectly
- Mislabeling or mishandling samples
- Incorrect storage or handling of samples
- Contamination of samples due to failure to sterilize equipment or other reasons
- Losing a sample
- Delay in processing a sample
- Performing the wrong test on a sample
- Misinterpreting test results
- Failing to send a lab report to the physician who ordered the tests, or sending it to the wrong physician
Any one of these errors can result in a delayed diagnosis, incorrect treatment, diminished chances for recovery, and unnecessary costs.
What Does Laboratory Malpractice Look Like?
Lab errors can take as many forms as the conditions they are designed to help diagnose or treat, including:
- A newborn infant whose sample for a routine phenylketonuria (PKU) was not tested due to laboratory negligence. All newborns are screened for PKU, a metabolic disorder that can lead to intellectual disabilities if left untreated; one in every 10,000-15,000 babies has this disorder. Because the parents were not advised of a positive result, the child remained untreated and developed avoidable disabilities.
- A patient whose rare cancer was not detected by lab tests, perhaps due to a laboratory sample that was improperly stored prior to processing. By the time the test was repeated after the patient’s symptoms continued to worsen, her chance of recovery was significantly diminished.
- A young woman presented at an emergency department (ED)complaining of severe abdominal pain. A urine sample was taken to determine whether she had a urinary tract infection. The hospital lab processed the sample, which was positive for infection, but reported the result to the wrong doctor. Down in the ED, the patient was discharged without the test result in her chart. Her infection worsened and she later died of sepsis.
- A married couple, both of whom had a family history of cystic fibrosis (CF), submitted to genetic testing before attempting to conceive a child. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, pancreas, and other organs; CF can shorten a sufferer’s life expectancy by decades. The test results indicated that one spouse was a carrier of the genetic mutation for CF, but the other was not. Unless both parents contribute a gene for CF, a child will not develop the disease (though they may be a carrier). Unfortunately, the sample for the spouse who allegedly did not carry the CF gene was improperly processed, and they did, in fact, have the gene. This was discovered only after the couple’s child exhibited symptoms of CF and was tested.
These are only a few of the many ways that a laboratory error can affect the lives not only of a patient, but of their families. People rely on accurate lab test results to guide their doctors in making a diagnosis and recommending treatment. When negligent errors occur in the lab, the outcome can be costly or even lethal.
What to Do if You Suspect a Laboratory Error
If you received a delayed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis due to a laboratory error, or received the wrong treatment because someone made a mistake in a lab, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries. Unfortunately, even a small error can lead to severe outcomes, including thousands of dollars in additional testing and treatment costs, loss of function, or loss of life.
To learn more about medical errors in clinical laboratories, or to discuss your options if you have been the victim of a laboratory error, contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.
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.