It is not unusual for an attorneys who handle medical malpractice cases to be contacted about a case involving the misdiagnosis (or delayed diagnosis) of cancer. These cases tend to occur most frequently with those types of cancer for which there are clear screening guidelines and easily available diagnostic tests that make it possible to detect the cancer while it is still at an early, and curable, stage.
One such type of cancer is prostate cancer in men. When detected and treated while in an early stage prostate cancer has a 5-year survival rate of approximately 97 percent. That is, statistically, only 3 out of 100 men diagnosed with and treated for early stage prostate cancer will succumb to the cancer within 5 years. Once the cancer spreads outside the prostate, that rate drops to approximately 50%. And after the cancer metastasizes to distant organs, patients have a life expectancy of only 2-3 years.
Below are 10 of the most common types of mistakes that doctors typically make which can result in a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of prostate cancer.
1. Not conducting a work up to diagnose patient complaints. Common complaints which are ignored or misdiagnosed as BPH include frequent urination and trouble urinating. It is not possible to determine whether a patient’s complaints are due to BPH or to cancer without appropriate testing.
2. Failure to note that a patient’s family history or race increases the risk of a particular type of cancer. For example, men with a first-degree relative with prostate cancer and men of African-American descent are at increased risk of prostate cancer.
3. Not informing the patient about the option of screening for prostate cancer. There are guidelines in place for screening asymptotic men for prostate cancer. These include the PSA blood test and the digital prostate examination.
4. Not ordering PSA testing. The PSA blood test measures the level of prostate specific antigen in the patient’s blood. Because prostate cancer causes the level to rise an abnormally high test result could be caused by prostate cancer.
5. Not performing a digital prostate examination. This exam tests for the presence of a nodule or a hardened area on the prostate which could be cancerous.
6. Not informing the patient of abnormal PSA or digital prostate exam results. Once test results indicate the possibility of cancer the patient has a right to know in order to be able to make an informed decision about options for further testing and treatment.
7. Telling a patient with complaints or with abnormal PSA or digital prostate exam results that he has BPH and not prostate cancer. Yet, without appropriate additional testing, such as a biopsy, it is not possible to determine whether the abnormal test results are due to BPH or to cancer.
8. Not referring a patient with abnormal test results to a Urologist. As a specialist, a Urologist is in a better position to determine whether the patient’s complaints or abnormal test results are due to cancer.
9. Not ordering a biopsy after abnormal test results. Most doctors would recommend a biopsy as the appropriate diagnostic test following abnormal results from screening tests.
10. Misreading biopsy samples. This can happen when the samples are mixed up with those of another patient or are incorrectly read as negative.
Beyond mistakes involving diagnosis, doctors also sometimes make mistakes after the cancer has been diagnosed. As an example of this, consider:
11. Not recommending treatment for a patient with prostate cancer. As soon as it is clear that the patient has cancer treatment options need to be discussed so that the patient can make an informed decision.
Any one of a combination of these mistakes can result in a delay in diagnosing the patient’s prostate cancer such that by the time it is finally detected it has progressed to an advanced, possibly metastatic, stage. By then, the cancer is no longer curable. And the patient or his family may have a claim for medical malpractice against the doctor(s) whose mistake(s) delayed the diagnosis.