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Misdiagnosis: Righting The Wrong

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on May 10, 2021.

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Misdiagnosis Cited As A Reason For 46% Of Claims

Studies claim that failed, delayed or incorrect diagnoses account for the majority (46%) of all medical malpractice claims. The majority cited reasons such as inadequate assessments, delayed or lack of diagnostic testing, inadequate physicals or medical histories as contributing factors. Some occurred because doctors failed to consider relevant clinical information or ignored abnormal findings.

Misdiagnoses occurred in people with cancer, heart disease, bone disease, in those with clotting disorders, and in children. The consequences of misdiagnoses can be extreme and include death or disability from misguided treatment. For example, being diagnosed with cancer at any age is devastating, but if it's before childbirth and results in a hysterectomy, then it is especially cruel. Young women mistakenly diagnosed with endometrial cancer and then having their uterus removed are just one example of a condition being wrongly diagnosed. If you have any doubts about a particular diagnosis, consult a different specialist for a second opinion.

Heart Attack: Symptoms Often Similar To Indigestion

In movies, heart attack victims clutch their chest, dramatically fall to the ground, then usually die suddenly in agony. But in real life, symptoms of a heart attack are usually much more subtle.

Heart attacks are the result of a narrowing of the arteries that surround the heart. This subsequently starves the heart tissue of oxygen. Symptoms may come on gradually, and pain or discomfort may be felt in one or both arms, or the back, neck, jaw, or stomach, rather than just the heart. In fact, indigestion, also called heartburn, is a common misdiagnosis for a heart attack.

A cardiac arrest is more likely to cause sudden symptoms and cause a person to fall to the ground suddenly. CPR is needed to keep blood flowing around the body before a defibrillator can be used to attempt to restart the heart.

Celiac Disease: 83% Undiagnosed Or Wrong Diagnosis

Diagnosing celiac disease is tricky. There are tests that detect antibodies in your blood against a specific protein linked to celiac disease; however, it is easy to get a false negative result if you have already been following a gluten-free diet. The only definite way to know if you have celiac disease is by having a biopsy of your small intestine.

Symptoms of the disease vary so much it takes on average ten years to arrive at a diagnosis. Misdiagnosis as irritable bowel disease or Crohn's disease is common. Always consult a physician with expert knowledge of celiac disease.

Strokes: Thousands Sent Home Annually

We tend to think that strokes only happen to seniors. And, according to one study, so do many doctors in the emergency room. Estimates suggest up to 10% of strokes, or over 100,000 people per year are misdiagnosed, at least initially. Instead of being diagnosed with a stroke, doctors attribute their symptoms to mild, non-specific or transient neurological complaints, such as a headache or dizziness, delaying the start of stroke treatment. People under the age of 45, women, and non-white patients are most at risk of being misdiagnosed.

The acronym FAST identifies the most likely stroke symptoms and stands for:

  • Face drooping on one side
  • Arm weakness on one side
  • Speech jumbled, slurred or lost
  • T for time to call 911.
Consider a stroke with any unusual headache, dizziness, or numbness, and Act Fast.

Lyme Disease: Not The Only Disease Caused By Ticks

If you come down with flu-like symptoms after being bitten by a tick or soon after walking in the woods, the natural assumption is "Oh, you have Lyme disease".

But several other tick-borne illnesses cause similar symptoms, and treatment varies depending on the infecting organism. To ensure a more accurate diagnosis, capture the tick if possible. Provide a thorough history to your doctors - where you have been, what you did, and if you have developed a rash recently.

Doxycycline is the most common treatment for Lyme disease but if you haven't shown any response within a day, insist your doctor does further tests to check for other diagnoses.

Fibromyalgia: A Default Diagnosis?

There are countless stories on the Internet about people being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia. But to be fair, the definition of fibromyalgia is relatively vague...

  • A common and chronic disorder characterized by widespread pain, diffuse tenderness, and a number of other symptoms.

For many people, it takes years of testing before a doctor finally arrives at the fibromyalgia diagnosis. But if your symptoms are more localized, came on suddenly, or you are not convinced of the diagnosis, seek a second opinion. Always check with your insurance to see if costs are covered for a second opinion.

Thyroid Disorder: Rule It Out

Our thyroid gland is a small butterfly shaped gland in our neck. It produces thyroid hormone, which is distributed throughout our body to all organs, and controls how our body uses food for energy.

It's a fine line between having an overproductive and an underproductive thyroid. Too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) and we feel nervous and irritable, have trouble sleeping, can't concentrate, feel hot when others are cold, and have a fast heart beat.

Too low a level of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) and we lack energy, feel cold, become constipated, and gain weight easily. A thyroid test is easy to do. Insist your doctor does one if you have any of the above symptoms.

Parkinson's Disease: It's More Than Just A Tremor

In its early stages, Parkinson's Disease (PD) is not an easy disease to diagnose. Symptoms are generally mild and easily overlooked and there is no one laboratory test or imaging study that will provide a definite diagnosis.

According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, misdiagnosis rates of PD are high. Several other conditions, such as Benign Essential Tremor, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, and medication-induced parkinsonism present in a similar way. Tests conducted over several months by a specialist in PD are needed to ensure an accurate diagnosis. A second opinion should be considered, too.

Pulmonary Embolism: Misdiagnosis Rate Of 33%

Our blood naturally clots to seal a wound but some people, such as those with heart disease, cancer, who are pregnant, or who smoke, have blood that is more likely to clot than others. If a clot forms in a place where it shouldn't, such as the deep veins of the legs (called a Deep Vein Thrombosis [DVT]), lungs (called a pulmonary embolism [PE]), brain (called an ischemic stroke), or heart (called a myocardial infarction or heart attack), it can be deadly.

Symptoms of a blood clot in the lungs (called a PE) include shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, and an irregular heart beat. These can easily be mistaken for symptoms of asthma, pneumonia, COPD, or an aortic dissection.

Lupus: Symptoms Can Be Vague

Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus) is an autoimmune disease characterized by an overactive and hyper-protective immune system that attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs.

Symptoms of lupus include joint stiffness, pain, facial rashes, skin sores, fever, weight fluctuation, memory loss, chest pain, and depression. These symptoms are so nonspecific that they can be easily misdiagnosed as Lyme disease, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome or another condition.

The American College of Rheumatology lists the following symptoms common to lupus to help doctors make a correct diagnosis:

  • Rashes: either butterfly-shaped over the cheeks, red rash with raised round or oval patches, or a rash on skin that has been exposed to the sun
  • Mouth or nose that last from a few days to more than a month
  • Arthritis in two or more joints
  • Lung or heart inflammation
  • Kidney problems, such as blood or protein in the urine
  • Neurologic problems, such as seizures, strokes or psychosis
  • Abnormal blood tests such as anemia, low white blood cells, or low platelets
  • Abnormal antibodies.

Finished: Misdiagnosis: Righting The Wrong

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