When something suddenly happens or you really don’t feel well after-hours at your doctor’s office, you may head to the nearest emergency room to get help. Emergency rooms exist to diagnose medical conditions and provide needed treatments to stabilize a patient on the spot. Emergency room doctors regularly perform many types of diagnostic tests and recommend treatments, which may include self-care at home, a follow-up with a doctor, or even admittance to the hospital straight from the E.R. Patients rely on emergency room doctors to correctly identify any medical conditions and prescribe the necessary treatment.
Unfortunately, doctors in the emergency room are only human, and they make mistakes like anyone else. They also work long hours and see many, many patients each shift, which can increase the possibility of errors. Some people do not receive the correct diagnosis and treatment recommendations in the E.R., and they may suffer unnecessary injuries and expenses as a result.
Common E.R. Diagnosis Errors
Emergency room mistakes can range from medication errors to mishandled patient information, leading to the misdiagnosis or failed diagnosis of patients. These mistakes may include:
- Disregarding certain symptoms. Many symptoms can signal multiple medical conditions—some much more serious than others. All too often, an emergency room doctor may observe a certain symptom and assume it is a sign of a minor ailment, failing to perform tests to rule out more serious conditions. Often, for example, rectal bleeding is a sign of hemorrhoids, so a doctor may send a patient home with instructions to apply over-the-counter hemorrhoid cream. Rectal bleeding, however, can also indicate significantly more serious issues, such as colon cancer. If a doctor makes a judgment regarding hemorrhoids without performing additional tests, a patient with cancer may go without potentially life-saving treatments. Cancer may spread, requiring much more invasive treatment, and may become life-threatening.
- Misdiagnosis of a heart attack. People may rush to the E.R. because they experience chest pain or similar signs of a potential heart attack. However, too many emergency room doctors misdiagnosis such symptoms as indigestion and send these patients on their way. This is common in otherwise healthy patients who don’t seem the “typical” candidates for heart attacks. For example, a doctor may automatically assume a relatively young patient, in good shape, who exercises regularly and eats healthily, did not have a heart attack. However, a doctor who asks about family history or performs cardiac-related tests may diagnose an obvious heart attack in the same patient. A doctor who sends such a patient home with an indigestion diagnosis fails to provide the treatment needed to prevent another heart attack. A subsequent cardiac event—which a proper E.R. diagnosis may have avoided—may prove fatal.
- Misreading test results. Sometimes, an E.R. doctor will perform all of the necessary tests but will fail to get the proper diagnosis from the test results. For example, if a patient has a severely injured foot, the doctor may appropriately order an X-ray. However, the doctor may misread the X-ray and miss the fracture. The patient then gets sent home with a diagnosis of a bruised or sprained foot. The patient does not properly stay off the foot or get the needed supportive boot or medical equipment. An untreated fracture may develop serious complications. For instance, the bone structure of the foot may become deformed, which can lead to problems wearing shoes or even moving that part of the foot. The muscles, ligaments, or nerves may also become damaged—all because a doctor failed to properly read the X-ray.
- Delaying diagnosis and treatment. The chaos of an emergency room—especially on weekends, holidays, and at night when other doctors’ offices close—can result in some E.R. doctors prioritizing what they believe are the most serious conditions. This may leave others to wait for hours before they even talk to a doctor. If someone has a serious condition in need of immediate attention and doctors leave that person without a diagnosis for too long, illnesses and injuries can worsen.
Legal Claims Against an E.R.
Misdiagnosis in the emergency room can often result in patients needing more medical treatments down the road than they originally would have. If a condition is exacerbated or complications develop due to lack of treatment, a patient can incur many unnecessary losses, which may include:
- Medical expenses – If patients need any medical care that was otherwise unnecessary, losses can include revisiting the E.R., hospitalization, specialist appointments, surgeries, medical equipment, medication, and more.
- Lost wages – Untreated, serious medical conditions may cause patients to miss work to obtain treatments. This can result in past and future lost earnings.
- Permanent injuries – Some undiagnosed medical conditions can cause permanent damage or become life-threatening, or the escalated treatments may cause serious side-effects, scarring, or disfigurement.
- Pain and suffering – Injuries and illnesses themselves can result in pain and suffering, especially as they worsen. In addition, knowing that your condition became unnecessarily serious can also cause distress and mental pain and suffering.
Misdiagnosed patients have the right to seek compensation if the negligence of emergency room medical professionals caused their losses. Medical negligence is a complex legal standard, and if you suspect you may have a legal claim, evaluate what happened with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. Many states impose strict time limits for these cases, so do not hesitate to learn about your rights and options after a misdiagnosis at the E.R.
Attending the prestigious Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College and earning his Jurist Doctorate from Stetson University College of Law, Mr. Dolman currently focuses on the litigation of catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases—only representing plaintiffs who have been physically injured as a result of the negligence exhibited by an individual or corporation. For his efforts, he has been named a Florida Super Lawyer two years in a row as well as a "Legal Elite Up and Comer" by Florida Trends Magazine.