Delayed Diagnosis and Cancer: Medical Malpractice
January 4, 2023
Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow uncontrollably and eventually spread through the body. An early diagnosis can often successfully treat cancer, as the abnormal cells can be removed or treated before they spread to other organs or parts of the body.
In the U.S., the average time from cancer showing symptoms to diagnosis is just over five months. As this is the average, that means many patients in the U.S. wait even longer to receive a diagnosis. Other developed countries diagnose cancer more quickly.
When a doctor or other medical professional does not order the proper tests, misses signs of cancer in test results, misdiagnoses the cause of symptoms, or otherwise fails to “connect the dots” to make a cancer diagnosis when they should, it may be actionable malpractice then contact a medical malpractice lawyer. Here is a look at the impacts commonly experienced by those with a delayed cancer diagnosis and the compensation they may be able to seek to cover the expenses and the impacts created by the delay.
What Causes a Delay in Diagnosing Cancer?
Cancer is not always easy to diagnose. Many cancers produce few symptoms until the disease progresses past the early stages. When symptoms appear, patients commonly first mention them to their primary care physicians. However, the often non-specific symptoms can be caused by a number of other medical conditions. Doctors may have to order a battery of tests to rule out other conditions or diagnose the cause as cancer. So long as the doctor is taking reasonable and timely steps to determine the cause of your symptoms, some delay is common and expected.
However, a cancer diagnosis can be unreasonably delayed by a healthcare provider’s negligence. Negligence that can result in a delayed cancer diagnosis includes:
- The patient’s doctor failed to order appropriate diagnostic tests or follow-up care based on the presenting symptoms.
- The patient’s medical team failed to correctly interpret laboratory results and diagnostic imaging tests.
- The patient’s healthcare provider failed to obtain an accurate and thorough medical history that would suggest an increased risk of certain cancers.
- The patient’s doctor provided a misdiagnosis, diagnosing cancer as another disease or condition and then treating the patient for a condition they do not have while cancer progresses untreated.
- The healthcare facility is understaffed or has high turnover, which can result in lapses in communication and delays in scheduling diagnostic procedures or follow-up appointments so the provider can communicate with the patient about their condition and start a treatment plan.
Doctors initially misdiagnose more than a quarter of all cancers, especially breast, colorectal, lung, and pancreatic cancers. When this is the result of negligence, it is possible to recover damages for the impacts you suffer from a delay in diagnosis.
The Many Impacts of a Delayed Cancer Diagnosis
Cancer is one of the most overwhelming health problems one can face. A cancer diagnosis is quickly followed by uncertainty, expense, and treatments that often make the individual feel a lot worse before they start feeling better.
These issues worsen for those diagnosed in the late stages of the disease, who face dwindling treatment options, decreased chances of survival, and additional medical expenses due to their declining health from the illness.
U.S. cancer patients pay around $5.6 billion out-of-pocket for cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy drugs. A delay in the diagnosis causes the available treatment options to dwindle. A patient’s health can decline to the point where they cannot earn an income. The cost-effectiveness of the available options becomes less of a consideration, as does the ability to choose where to receive the needed treatment.
Cancer patients – regardless of how quickly they received a diagnosis and began treatment – are 71 percent more likely than individuals without the disease to face collection agencies, tax liens, mortgage foreclosure, and other negative financial impacts. They are 2.5 percent more likely to declare bankruptcy. Bankrupt cancer patients are more likely to die than those who suffer less severe financial consequences due to the financial consequences associated with the disease.
Quality of Life Impacts
Frequent medical appointments, painful procedures, and the need to uproot a family to go to a location where the patient can obtain the treatment they need for their disease—these are some of the many quality-of-life impacts that those with a delayed cancer diagnosis can experience.
Other impacts often include:
- The need for family members to provide caregiving services to the patient, administering their medications at home and managing the symptoms and side effects of both the disease and the treatment; making medical appointments or providing transportation for those appointments; and helping with legal and financial issues such as past-due bills and insurance paperwork.
- Coping with the many emotions associated with the delayed diagnosis, including anger, depression, fear, and uncertainty. When doctors diagnose cancer early, the main goal of treatment is almost always to cure the patient. Later on, doctors may need to focus on extending life or pain management if it is not possible to achieve remission.
- Physical side effects of the disease and treatment, include the removal of an organ or limb, swelling, pain from treatments and medications, infertility, heart problems resulting from common medications used to treat cancer, and dental or vision problems resulting from treatment.
- Losing the ability to participate in activities that the patient previously enjoyed due to the physical limitations imposed by the disease or treatment.
Impacts to Survival
After a cancer diagnosis, a patient’s healthcare provider will often order additional tests to determine the stage of the disease. This helps to understand the survival rate for patients with that type and stage of cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the five-year survival rates of individuals with cancer diagnosed in the late stages are significantly lower than those diagnosed early.
Here are the survival rates for several common types of cancer:
- Female breast cancer has a 98 percent five-year survival rate when doctors discover and treat the disease while it only affects a small, localized part of the body. However, the survival rate plummets to 30 percent when the disease spreads to distant organs.
- Fifty-seven percent of lung cancer patients whose condition doctors diagnosed in the early stages will live five years after diagnosis. However, only 7 percent of those diagnosed in the late stage of the disease will survive for five years after diagnosis.
- Nearly all men diagnosed with prostate cancer in the early stages will survive five years after diagnosis. However, the five-year survival rate for those diagnosed with the disease after it spreads to distant regions of the body is only 32 percent.
- The survival rate for those diagnosed with early-stage colorectal cancer is 88 percent. Those diagnosed after the disease spreads to distant regions of the body have only a 16 percent five-year survival rate.
Although these statistics are grim, keep in mind that they are based on those who were diagnosed and treated a number of years ago, and new treatments are constantly being discovered and implemented.
How the Medical Malpractice Claims Process Works
The medical malpractice claims process generally begins when the injured patient or the personal representative of the deceased’s estate hires an attorney to assist them with their claim. Because medical malpractice attorneys generally work on a contingent fee basis, the patient or their family can wait to pay for their attorney’s services and do so with a percentage of the compensation they receive for their claim.
The attorney investigates the claim, determines who is at fault, and hires an expert to testify as to how the at-fault doctor violated the standard of care they should have provided to the patient. The attorney then creates a notice of the claim that is sent to the at-fault doctor, hospital, or any other party who is liable for the malpractice. The at-fault parties then have a specific number of days to respond to the notice, which is about six months. When this time has passed, the plaintiff can file a lawsuit.
Healthcare facilities generally maintain medical malpractice policies that cover errors committed by their facility or staff that result in injury or death to a patient. Doctors often work as independent contractors, in which case healthcare facilities generally require them to maintain their own individual medical malpractice policies.
Once the provider’s medical malpractice insurer receives notice of the claim, they will evaluate it and may engage in pre-suit negotiations to settle the claim.
If these pre-suit negotiations are not successful, the plaintiff can file a medical malpractice lawsuit. However, filing a lawsuit does not put an end to settlement negotiations. In fact, many claims resolve after plaintiffs file the lawsuit because the insurer and the insured realize that settling the claim will avoid the expense and uncertainty of trial or further litigation.
Through a process called discovery, the claimant’s attorney will gather the evidence and witness testimony needed to prove the medical provider’s liability and justify the claim’s value to a judge or jury. The attorney will also participate in court for their clients by filing and responding to motions, deposing witnesses, and attending pre-trial conferences and hearings. If the claim does not settle before the case goes to trial, the claimant’s medical malpractice lawyer may present the case to a judge or jury.
After the case, the attorney will help the client receive compensation from a negotiated settlement or a court award if they were successful. The attorney will also work to settle medical liens for unpaid medical bills. The attorney will receive their payment as a percentage of the overall award.
Why You Need an Attorney for a Delayed Cancer Diagnosis Claim
Medical malpractice claims are among the most complex legal claims, requiring extensive experience in the legal process and knowledge of the evidence and medical documentation needed to prove these difficult claims in court. Most people lack the training, education, and experience to complete those tasks, but medical malpractice lawyers can do that for you and more.
Call the experienced and compassionate medical malpractice lawyers at Gruel Mills today to learn more about the potential legal remedies for your delayed cancer diagnosis claim.