How Life-Threatening a Misdiagnosis Can Be 


When a patient sees a doctor for headaches, dizziness, fatigue, chest pain, or other adverse physical symptoms, the doctor should create a list of possible illnesses and order diagnostic testing to determine the actual diagnosis. The consequences of a misdiagnosis may cause short-term issues, but in some cases, a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis causes long-term physical and mental effects and even death. 

Examples of potentially dangerous misdiagnoses range but have one general theme: worsening conditions.

In one malpractice case, the doctor diagnosed a benign cyst, which was kidney cancer. The kidney cancer diagnosis came too late as the kidney cancer had metastasized and was now terminal cancer. The patient received a settlement from the radiologist who misread the MRI. 

In another situation, a patient with appendicitis was diagnosed with intestinal inflammation when the doctor misread the CT scan. When the patient’s appendix ruptured, he had emergency surgery and suffered a stroke during the surgery. In this malpractice case, the patient won $1.5 million.

In yet another situation, the doctor performed surgery to remove cancer. However, after the surgery, the doctor realized another patient’s lab results were mistakenly used. The news that it was not cancer came too late. 

The Most Common Misdiagnoses

Heart Attack

Doctors may incorrectly attribute the signs of a heart attack to another health condition, such as indigestion, heartburn, or stress. The patient should have electrocardiography testing (ECG or EKG) completed within 10 minutes of arriving at the hospital with a suspected heart attack.


According to NeurologyToday, approximately 10% of stroke victims featuring mild neurological symptoms are initially misdiagnosed when they visit the ER.


Some of the most commonly delayed or misdiagnosed cancers include lung cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and lymphatic cancer. 


Patients Must Advocate for Themselves

 Patient advocate is one of the best ways to avoid misdiagnosis or delayed treatment. The following are things a patient can do:

Prepare: Bring previous lab work, X-rays, and diagnostic testing to the appointment. 

Expect the Doctor to Listen: The doctor must provide ample time for the patient to explain symptoms and present their medical history, including a family history of illness.

List of Possible Illnesses: After collecting information from the patient, reviewing prior medical reports, and completing a physical exam, the physician should create a list of possible illnesses causing the symptoms.

Diagnostic Testing: The doctor should order a range of diagnostic tests to lead to a correct diagnosis.

Schedule Follow-up Visit and Testing: The doctor should provide the patient with a timely follow-up appointment and offer assistance when needed to schedule testing like an MRI, x-ray, endoscopy, colonoscopy, or PET scan.

Review Diagnostic Testing: The doctor should review the tests promptly and order additional testing based on any flags.

See a Specialist: If a diagnosis is inconclusive, the doctor should recommend a specialist to have the tests reviewed.  

Receive a Diagnosis: The doctor should provide the patient with a diagnosis during the follow-up appointment based on the tests or send them to a specialist when needed. 

Ask Questions: When the patient receives a diagnosis, ask the doctor if the symptoms indicate any other possibilities. Ask if they crossed those possible illnesses off their list before determining the diagnosis. Be bold, ask questions about the diagnosis, the prognosis, the recovery.

Treatment Recommendations: Review treatment options at the visit with the doctor, including possible medications and lifestyle changes.

Second Opinion: The patient should request a second opinion if the symptoms are not improving or getting worse.

Request a Specialist: When the symptoms do not get better, the patient should request a referral to a specialist. A specialist can determine if the initial diagnosis is correct and help find the accurate diagnosis when needed.

Misdiagnosis or Malpractice?

In some cases, a misdiagnosis is considered medical malpractice. Diagnosing a heart attack patient with a gastric problem is an example of malpractice. However, even experienced doctors can make mistakes, and misdiagnosis may not be due to medical malpractice or negligence. 

Medical malpractice must include these factors:

  • An established doctor-patient relationship, meaning the doctor had a legal duty of care towards the patient.

  • The doctor breached the legal duty of care by mistaking the condition or failing to diagnose it.

  • The patient suffered more significant injury or harm because the doctor did not provide a timely diagnosis or gave an incorrect diagnosis.

Other conditions may factor into a misdiagnosis. For example, the patient is responsible for sharing their medical history and family history along with any non-obvious symptoms with the doctor, such as chest pain, depression, or headaches.

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