The Washington Post published another story this week on the growing concern about communication between those involved in diagnostic testing and the doctors and patients who rely on that testing. Our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers have posted several stories over that past few weeks on this issue, which is now making national headlines. As this latest story explained, far too frequently there are problems with communicating the results of medical tests in a timely fashion. In a variety of ways, there are communication problems that can arise between a lab or radiology department and the clinician that orders the test. Those problems can have ramifications on the care provided to a patient. In certain cases the issue may be at the center of a medical malpractice lawsuit.
For example, the case of one fifty-nine year old woman highlights the serious harm that can result. The woman went to her doctor’s office for her annual gynecological exam and mammogram several years ago. She got a letter in the mail saying that he Pap test results were normal. She did not hear anything about her mammogram result, but she assumed that if anything was amiss she would hear from her doctor. She didn’t hear anything and logically thought that nothing must be wrong.
A year later when the woman went back for the next annual test, her doctor was surprised that no mammogram results were found in her chart. The doctor questioned why there wasn’t a test the year before. The woman said that the test was performed, and so the doctor investigated to figure out the mix-up. A few hours later the doctor had discovered the mistake. The previous test results were found and the woman had breast cancer. It seems that the test results from the previous year were mistakenly sent to an orthopedic surgeon at a different medical facility that had the same last name as the woman’s gynecologist. By the time the cancer was discovered it had spread from her breast to her chest wall. She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation as soon as possible to aggressively treat the problem. Unfortunately, the cancer came back the following year, requiring the woman to have a mastectomy. The woman eventually filed a medical malpractice lawsuit because of the communication problem which led to a delayed diagnosis.
This woman’s story is not an isolated incident. Hundreds of cases are reported each year of patients and doctors not receiving test results which, if received, may have allowed for timely treatment. At other times there are unreasonable delays in the receipt of test results. These issues are leading many patient advocacy groups to push for better patient care coordination. It is hoped that certain technology changes, like the increased use of electronic records, may help eliminate this form of medical error. However, electronic records come with their own potential problems. That is why it is often important for the patient to take as active a role in their care as possible. If medical test results are not revealed or if any problems are suspected, patients should take it upon themselves to reach out, ask questions, and possibly identify a medical error.
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