Medical Malpractice for Failure to Diagnose A Stroke

failure to diagnose a stroke,      brain scanWe trust our treating physicians to act diligently and properly, especially when we see them in an emergency situation. Medicine is difficult and often an imprecise science, but we nonetheless expect doctors to do what a prudent and reasonable doctor would do in the same situation the treating doctor is in. Failure to diagnose a stroke can be a huge oversight with tremendous consequences. 

When a family member suffers a catastrophic medical condition, the first question families usually ask is “could this have been prevented?” Second-guessing ourselves and our treating doctors can be a natural part of the grieving process. Often, medical conditions can not be avoided, but sometimes there are indications that a prudent doctor can and should pick up on to avoid the worsening of medical conditions.

Failure to Diagnose A Stroke

Although the types of medical malpractice cases can vary, two kinds of medical malpractice cases are common.

The first is what we will call “active malpractice.” This is when a physician errs during a procedure, reads a medical record incorrectly, orders one procedure instead of another, or generally commits malpractice when engaged in the active treatment of a patient.

More common may be the failure to diagnose cases. These are cases in which a doctor misses signs and symptoms of a condition, and thus fails to treat the actual condition. Going untreated, the condition gets worse, and the patient suffers a more serious medical problem, or even death. An example would be diagnosing and treating a head cold, when the patient actually has bronchitis. 

Failure to diagnose cases can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, doctors may be busy, and may miss telling signs on a medical chart or important information being conveyed by a patient or her family. Just like in “real life,” it is easy to see the easy solution and overlook the more difficult or hidden ones.

All About Strokes

One of the most difficult condition to diagnose is a stroke. A stroke is a problem in a blood vessel in the brain that can deprive the brain of oxygen and nutrients and cause long-term brain damage. Strokes are the #5 cause of death in the United States. The signs and symptoms of a stroke can include:

  • Numbness in the face or on one side of the body
  • Trouble communicating or understanding speech
  • Difficulty seeing
  • Dizziness or difficulty walking
  • Headaches that don’t have an apparent cause

Like most medical issues, many of these symptoms can be symptomatic of other diseases and sometimes can be indicative of nothing. Many people, for example, may have a severe headache with no apparent cause. Many elderly people may have difficulty with sight or temporary bouts of confusion. This does not mean they are all having strokes.

Making matters more complex, there are different types of strokes. Some are caused by blood clotting, where the flow of blood (and thus nutrients and oxygen) are blocked. Others are caused by excessive bleeding in the brain; essentially a rupture of the veins and arteries in the brain. As you can imagine from the difference in descriptions, there is also a difference in treatment.

Diagnosing A Stroke

It is incumbent on treating doctors to properly and fully evaluate someone who shows the above symptoms for a stroke, and to properly diagnose what kind of stroke a patient may be experiencing. This may include ordering the proper tests (such as an MRI or CT scan), keeping the patient in a hospital for further testing and monitoring, or administering medications to treat stroke.

Many patients experience what is known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a “mini-stroke” which may cause no immediate damage and may eventually resolve itself. TIAs are a big warning sign of an oncoming full stroke. Thus, doctors who see patients that may be suffering a stroke should ask about whether the patient has had prior symptoms indicative of a TIA.

Doctors treating patients who have experienced a TIA should immediately begin treatment to avoid an actual stroke. Just as misdiagnosing an actual stroke can lead to disaster, so can ignoring a TIA.

Stroke testing is usually done through differential diagnoses. This is a process where doctors rule out other conditions, thus keying in on a limited set of possibilities.

For example, with a patient suffering from dizziness and severe headache, the physician may ask about any head trauma that may have occurred. If there is none, the doctor can rule out concussion. If the patient has vision problems, but no history of diabetes, that cause can be ruled out. Blood tests and diagnostic tests may be needed to eliminate other causes of the symptoms.

Once other causes are ruled out, stroke can be pinpointed as the cause of the symptoms.

But as you can likely already see from reading, the process can be time consuming, and unfortunately, many doctors and ERs may not take the time to rule out each cause to pinpoint concussion.

Damages Caused by Misdiagnosis of a Stroke

Certainly, many patients will come to the ER in the midst of a stroke and no amount of testing or treatment would have prevented it. But in many cases quick and proper diagnosis can mitigate or lessen the symptoms and long term effects of a stroke, and can even prevent death. One FDA treatment for blood clot strokes is only effective within a short period of time of suffering the stroke, making quick and accurate diagnosis even more important. Other treatments may include surgery.

Quick diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference in the long term disability of the patient. Thus, in stroke medical malpractice cases, the question often is not whether the doctor “caused” the stroke, but whether a failure to diagnose caused the patient to suffer additional or increased long term disabilities than would have otherwise been suffered.

As you can see, stroke medical malpractice cases can involve complex factual issues, and expert testimony and should be left only in the hands of attorneys who are familiar with handling medical malpractice. Contact the personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation about your case.