Delayed diagnosis tops breast cancer malpractice claims



The majority of medical malpractice lawsuits involving breast cancer result from delayed-diagnosis allegations, but a significant portion also stem from alleged poor management of breast cancer patients, a study showed.

In a review of 562 breast cancer malpractice claims from 2009 to 2014, 61% related to alleged delays in diagnosing breast cancer, and 39% stemmed from purported negligent treatment of patients, according to a joint analysis by medical liability insurers the Doctors Co. and CRICO.

Darrell Ranum

Darrell Ranum

“It was a big surprise to us to see that almost 40% of our cases involved patients who had already been diagnosed and were already receiving treatment,” said study coauthor Darrell Ranum, vice president of patient safety and risk management for the Doctors Co. “Breast cancer has been studied primarily from the angle of the diagnosis issues. We looked at our data, and we discovered there [was] really another very sizable bucket of claims involving breast cancer cases that involved treatment and management of breast cancer.”

The Doctors Co. and CRICO Strategies, a division of CRICO, pooled their databases of claims to conduct the study. Of the 562 breast cancer cases identified, 342 related to alleged delays in diagnosis, and 220 involved the management of breast cancer patients.

Nearly half of the delayed-diagnosis cases involved radiology (48%). But cases involving radiology did not necessarily result from a radiologist’s negligence. In some cases, primary care physicians or other clinicians may have misread or misinterpreted a radiologist’s report, Mr. Ranum said.

Physician offices/clinical care settings accounted for 39% of the delayed-diagnosis cases with family medicine and gynecology being the most common office settings in which cases originated. Common contributing factors to delayed-diagnosis lawsuits were inadequate patient assessment, such as misinterpretation of diagnostic studies. Delay in ordering diagnostic tests or failure to order them also topped contributing factors.

The vast majority of patients who had a delayed diagnosis of breast cancer were seriously harmed, with 70% of cases resulting in very severe outcomes, including 43 patient deaths, according to the report.

Of the 220 breast cancer management claims, 42% were surgery-related allegations. Patients often claimed poor performance of the initial surgery to remove a malignancy, or negligent performance of subsequent surgeries to reconstruct the breast, the study found.

Additional surgical allegations related to patient dissatisfaction with preoperative or postoperative management. The remaining nonsurgical cases related to medication management and minor procedures during the treatment course. The outcome of breast cancer claims involving surgical treatment were primarily of medium severity, with outcomes such as postoperative hematomas, injury to adjacent organs, and postoperative infections.

The analysis highlights opportunities for physicians to improve their care of breast cancer patients, both in the timely diagnosis of the disease and the ongoing management of care, Mr. Ranum said. He stressed that obtaining a timely and accurate diagnosis, including a complete history and interpretation of diagnostic studies, is critical. Equally important is the ongoing management of patients once an accurate diagnosis is made. Physicians should also implement processes, including documentation forms, that support and assist clinicians in providing a comprehensive informed consent process and better alignment of patients’ expectations.

“Systems need to be in place and systems need to be tested to make sure they don’t fail so that the information gets to where it needs to go,” Mr. Ranum said. “Our hope is that physicians will take a look at their own internal processes and track a patient from the time the physician says, ‘We need for you to have a mammogram,’ all the way through every step in that process.”

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