Can I Sue if My Doctor Failed to Diagnose My Medical Emergency?

Suffering a medical emergency and visiting the emergency room can be a scary experience.  Millions of people trust the medical professionals in emergency rooms across the country to diagnose and treat their health conditions accurately and within a reasonable amount of time.  Sometimes that is not the case, however, as even the most experienced provider can fail to diagnose an illness or injury correctly.  Unfortunately, this can lead to a more serious health issues or even death.

Experts estimate that over half of medical malpractice cases that result in further injury or death happen in the emergency room.  Many emergency rooms are chaotic, with overworked staff and mostly without much help.  Still, doctors and nurses still have a duty of care to their patients.  However, for whatever reason, misdiagnosis, delay in diagnosis, or no diagnosis at all can still happen, and you may wonder if you are able to be compensated for their medical malpractice.

The emergency department at a hospital is required to assess a patient, diagnose their emergency condition, and then achieve the goal of stabilizing the patient’s health.  The medical staff relies on the history of the patient’s health, physical examination, or appropriate tests to reach a diagnosis.  If the diagnosis is unclear, it could be a differential diagnosis, which is a list of likely diagnoses.

When there is a differential diagnosis, the main goal by the provider is to rule out life-threatening conditions first.  For example, if a patient complains of chest pain, the provider must rule out a heart attack or other life-threatening issues first, because if they are left untreated the patient could die.  Once ruled out, the provider could move on to other conditions that is causing the chest pain, such as indigestion or a muscle strain.  If the diagnosis is not done correctly and the patient suffers a worse condition or even death, that could lead to a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Examples of Misdiagnosis for Medical Emergencies

From overworked conditions to an understaffed facility, there are many reasons why a medical emergency can go misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all.  Here are some common examples of such a situation:

  • Assuming it is a common problem. A misdiagnosis can occur when a patient comes into the ER with similar symptoms to an illness, is then diagnosed to have that illness, but it turns out to be something else or something rarer. For instance, a patient’s flu-like symptoms can be assumed to be from influenza or COVID-19, and the patient is treated as such.  As it turns out, however, is that the patient’s symptoms were actually of a more serious bacterial infection that was left untreated.
  • Patient prematurely discharged from ER. Another common problem that may cause a misdiagnosis is when a patient is discharged from the emergency department before a proper diagnosis is made. Some emergency room providers may believe that their patient’s health problem can be addressed by the patient’s primary care provider or an outpatient provider.  However, if the provider fails to properly diagnose the patient and they are truly suffering from a medical emergency, they may suffer a far more serious illness or injury.
  • Taking too much time. For whatever reason, an emergency visit can take longer than expected. This could be because of a staffing shortage, or the ER is extremely busy, when the medical staff simply cannot diagnose a patient in a reasonable amount of time.  Some medical emergencies need to be treated right away, and if not tested and diagnosed in a reasonable amount of time, their health issue could lead to a permanent or debilitating problem.
  • Misdiagnosis. It is possible for a medical staff to diagnose a patient incorrectly because they either misinterpreted their testing or laboratory results, or there was an error in their system or a miscommunication. This can lead to all different types of mistakes, but the patient’s health may get worse because of the medical staff’s mistake.

How Do I Prove a Provider Misdiagnosed Me?

It is important to understand that misdiagnoses and mistakes happen in a medical setting, but it does not automatically mean that the provider who diagnosed the individual is negligent.  To prove that a medical malpractice occurred, a patient would have to prove that another competent provider under the same circumstances would have been able to provide the correct diagnosis, which can be difficult, as emergency doctors sometimes have a busier case load.

A misdiagnosis alone is not a basis for a personal injury lawsuit.  A patient would need to prove that because their condition was not accurately diagnosed, their condition worsened, and they did not receive the correct treatment.  For example, a patient comes into the emergency room complaining of chest pain, and the doctor prescribes the patient antacids.  The patient is discharged but then suffers a heart attack because, if their condition was diagnosed correctly, proper preventative measures would have been taken.

To prove a misdiagnosis, the patient must prove:

  • A doctor of the same specialty, under similar circumstances, would not have misdiagnosed the patient’s condition.
  • When attempting to diagnose a patient, a doctor may compile a list of different diagnoses and rule them out one by one with tests and questions. The patient must prove that the provider did not include the correct diagnosis in their list, but a competent doctor would have done so.
  • Alternatively, the doctor did list the correct diagnosis but did not perform the correct tests to reach that conclusion.
  • Or the patient was the victim of faulty laboratory equipment or test results that were misinterpreted, or a test was administered improperly, leading to the doctor reaching an incorrect diagnosis.
  • That the misdiagnosis led to the patient’s condition to worsen more than it would have had it have been correctly diagnosed.

There are a myriad of reasons that lead to a misdiagnosis.  Hospital emergency rooms deal with pressure and reduced time limits every day leading to misdiagnosis.  Unusual or rare illnesses that are more specific to a particular population are likely to be missed as well.  For instance, a homeless person asking for pain medication may be treated like a drug addict, whereas a person wearing clean clothes may be taken more seriously.

First responders are protected from such lawsuits as long as they do not act recklessly or intentionally harm a patient.  Emergency rooms are not afforded the same protection; in addition, some states hold emergency room doctors accountable should they act with gross negligence similar to a first responder before the patient’s injury is stabilized.

Generally, hospitals cannot be held liable for a non-employee’s negligence, as many doctors are not employees of their respective hospital.  However, the patient is not allowed to know the doctor’s employment status; therefore, some medical malpractice lawsuits may hold the hospital liable for the misdiagnosis.  Furthermore, a patient does not choose to see which doctor in an emergency room situation, so hospitals could still be held liable.  A hospital would also be held liable for malpractice should the injury or illness occur because of the actions of a hospital employee, such as a technician, laboratory worker, or others.

If a hospital is receiving federal funding through Medicare, they cannot refuse treatment to a patient in the emergency room, even if the patient cannot pay for their service.  If a hospital that is receiving Medicare fails to provide a screening for the patient and attempt to stabilize their condition, they could be held liable for malpractice.

A medical malpractice claim is complex and involves many aspects of both medicine and law.  It is wise to hire a medical malpractice lawyer who understands the complexities of both subjects.  Elements of a medical malpractice claim must be supported by other medical experts’ testimony, and a reputable lawyer would be able to select the right experts that could support your case.


Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Help Patients Misdiagnosed in Emergency Rooms

If you have been seriously injured or are suffering a severe illness because a provider has misdiagnosed you, you may be the victim of medical malpractice.  Reach out to the Baltimore medical malpractice lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton.  Our dedicated legal team will thoroughly investigate your case and continue to fight for you until you are completely satisfied. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

We have offices in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, allowing us to represent clients in Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.