Misdiagnosis and Traumatic Brain Injuries

by The Rothenberg Law Firm LLP

How often do diagnostic errors occur, and should individuals with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) be particularly concerned about the risks associated with misdiagnosis? According to a fact sheet from RightDiagnosis.com, TBIs can be difficult to diagnose properly. This fact is particularly true in cases of mild traumatic brain injury. What do you need to know about brain injury and misdiagnosis?

Brain Injuries Commonly Misdiagnosed

Brain injuries are a part of a “silent epidemic” that is slowly gaining attention. Why are TBIs described in this way? Because those suffering from these injuries often do not look sick (and thus suffer silently from the aftermath of a head trauma), and doctors often admit that they do not have a very clear understanding of brain injuries. In fact, the president of the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) describes traumatic brain injury as “the most misunderstood, misdiagnosed, underfunded health problem our nation faces.”

According to Dr. Ali Ganjei, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, patients with brain injuries often stump emergency doctors. Dr. Ganjei states: “People would have a concussions, they’d be out for an hour or so, then regaining consciousness, and we’d think everything was okay. If the person later had difficulties, we never linked it to that head injury.”

Given the complexity of TBIs, many of these injuries are often undiagnosed. An article in the journal Health & Social Work indicates that around 60% of brain injuries may go undiagnosed in the US. Moreover, mild TBIs are sometimes misdiagnosed, for instance, as some of the following conditions:

  • Balance problems;
  • Neurological disorders;
  • ADHD;
  • Concentration disorders;
  • Depression; and
  • Stroke.

Dangers of Misdiagnosis

The reason that so many TBIs are misdiagnosed may have to do with the rate at which symptoms appear. According to an article in the journal Biofeedback, the symptoms of TBI tend to progress very slowly. Indeed, long-term effects of a mild head injury may not appear for weeks after the initial trauma. As such, it can be difficult to immediately acknowledge that TBI symptoms are linked to a previous injury.

According to a report from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), “misdiagnosis by physicians is a serious and common occurrence in the health industry.” How often does misdiagnosis occur? Based on data from Kaiser Health News, the NCPA reported the following statistics:

  • Between 10 and 20% of all patients are misdiagnosed, meaning that misdiagnosis is a problem that is statistically larger and more significant than prescription drug errors and surgical errors.
  • It is possible that nearly 30% of all diagnostic errors are life-threatening or actually result in the death of the patient.
  • Fatal diagnostic errors, by the numbers, equal around the total number of deaths from breast cancer on an annual basis.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Claim for a Diagnostic Error

Given the high rate of misdiagnoses in the U.S. and the shocking number of serious and even fatal diagnostic errors, it is important to know that you have rights as a patient. If you or someone you love suffered serious harm because of a diagnostic error, you may be eligible to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

What would you need to prove in order to be successful? Medical malpractice laws vary from state to state, but in general, a plaintiff who suffered a diagnostic error will need to show:

  • The patient had a doctor-patient relationship with the healthcare provider alleged to have made the diagnostic error, thereby creating a duty of care to the patient;
  • The health care provider breached the duty of care when he or she negligently misdiagnosed the condition; and
  • The healthcare provider’s negligence in failing to diagnose and/or treat the condition in a timely manner, caused the patient’s injury.

Legal Remedies

The mere fact of a misdiagnosis does not immediately mean that the healthcare provider was negligent. When determining whether a doctor is negligent, a court will look at whether the doctor’s actions in arriving at the diagnosis “deviated from the ordinary standard of care.” Meaning, did the actions of the misdiagnosing doctor differ from the actions that other healthcare professionals in a similar field and similar geographic area would have taken? Each case has its own complexities, and it is important to have an experienced medical malpractice attorney assess your case.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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The Rothenberg Law Firm LLP

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