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Physician communication errors leading to delayed diagnosis

The practice of medicine used to be fairly basic. You had one doctor who performed most of the work himself and communicated with you directly about what he found. Medicine was, of course, more primitive at this time, which is why it could be so personalized.

These days, you may need to see numerous specialists and testing physicians to reach or confirm a diagnosis. While this is largely a benefit to patient care, there are also some serious drawbacks due to the way that doctors communicate (or fail to communicate) with one another.

Test results too often get missed or are not clearly understood

According to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, lack of communication between testing physicians and primary care doctors is responsible for a significant percentage of missed and delayed diagnoses, especially of serious diseases like cancer. The main problem, according to the article’s author, is that it is still common practice for test results to be given back to the treating physician rather than having patients communicate directly with the pathologist, radiologist or other testing physician.

Anytime information is transferred, it is an opportunity for details to be missed or misinterpreted. Here are some of the ways in which passing test results between doctors can be problematic:

  • Patients are sometimes treated in the emergency room, and the doctor who orders their test is only their doctor during that one visit. They may fail to follow up after the patient goes home because they receive hundreds of test results per week.
  • Treating physicians do not have the same knowledge as specialists, and they may misinterpret or fail to understand the test results they are seeing.
  • Patients cannot ask direct follow-up questions to the specialist or testing physician who ordered the test. This is another opportunity for missed information or misinformation.
  • Even if all information is conveyed accurately, precious time is lost by having test results go through a treating physician rather than directly to the patient. Any follow-up questions may need to be relayed back to the testing physician, wasting additional time.

How can this problem be fixed?

The article’s author – who is a professor of pathology – believes that patients should communicate directly with the doctors who run tests or make complex diagnoses. There is no reason, other than outdated tradition, why the current model persists. It only increases the risk of miscommunication and misdiagnosis.

If you or a loved one suffered serious harm (or worse) due to a delayed diagnosis or incorrect diagnosis, communication problems may have played a role. To better understand your rights and legal options, please discuss your case with an experienced medical malpractice attorney in your area.