Medical misdiagnosis: what is it and how do you know if you have been misdiagnosed?

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    Simply put, medical misdiagnosis means a wrong or mistaken diagnosis. If you receive a diagnosis from your doctor or specialist and the symptoms don’t go away with the recommended treatment, you have probably been misdiagnosed.

    Misdiagnosis happens more often that you think with estimates putting the number of diagnostic errors in Australia at 140,000 cases a year. Of these, 21,000 are cases causing serious harm while another 2,000 – 4,000 cases of medical misdiagnosis unfortunately result in death.

    Common causes of medical misdiagnosis

    The most common reasons for a medical misdiagnosis include:

    • inexperience of the treatment provider;
    • lack of time to fully appreciate your history and presenting symptoms;
    • lack of access to available data;
    • poor communication between different medical providers involved in your treatment; or
    • dismissal of a condition because your presentation is atypical of that condition.

    Misdiagnosis is more common in certain areas of medicine, for example:

    • General Practitioners – your GP may fail to consider life or limb threatening conditions before reaching a conclusion that your symptoms are not serious enough to warrant urgent treatment. This means they may not refer you to the appropriate specialist for proper treatment.
    • Radiologists – may incorrectly report on your medical imaging, such as x-ray, CT or MRI scan, which then leads the GP or specialist to form an incorrect treatment plan.
    • Pathologists – these specialists review bloods, biopsy specimens and samples of tissue taken during surgery. A diagnosis of, for example, benign tissue when in fact it turns out to be malignant, is a very serious error.
    • Hospitals – emergency departments particularly are time poor, so can fail to consider life or limb threatening conditions before reaching a conclusion that your symptoms are not serious enough to warrant urgent treatment.

    What happens when you have been misdiagnosed?

    Although the misdiagnosis can often be rectified, especially if caught early enough, sometimes it can lead to serious consequences. If you have been misdiagnosed, it generally means you will suffer a delay in receiving the treatment you need. In some cases, this delay can have a permanent impact on your condition; for example, a misdiagnosis of bony injuries or spinal cord injuries leading to paraesthesia. In extreme cases, it might lead to death, such as a misdiagnosis in stroke or cancer cases.

    What to do if you think you have been misdiagnosed

    1. Trust your gut: you know your body better than anyone. If you don’t believe that your medical provider has fully taken your symptoms into account, or the recommended treatment isn’t working, go back for a further consultation to raise these concerns; or
    2. Seek a second opinion.
    3. Don’t take no for an answer. Sometimes your GP will feel they have already made an appropriate specialist referral and don’t take kindly to their judgment being questioned. It’s up to you to advocate for your health if you have concerns.

    If it’s already too late for a second opinion, and your condition cannot be treated, you have a number of legal avenues open to you:

    • You can make a complaint to your State’s Health Ombudsman or the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency; or
    • You can talk to a specialist lawyer about your options. Whilst compensation cannot restore your health, it can help provide you with services and funding that mean you can lead a better quality of life with as much independent living as possible.
      In circumstances where you have lost a loved one due to misdiagnosis, you can bring a claim for the dependants who are left behind.