Breast Cancer Misdiagnosis and Follow-Up Care Errors

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Breast cancer is one of the most deadly cancers for women.  Unfortunately, it is often misdiagnosed.

Misdiagnosis is a common but potentially very serious medical error.  It takes several forms:

  • Wrong diagnosis
  • Delayed diagnosis
  • Missed diagnosis

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women - behind only lung cancer.  The organization estimates that in 2021 more than 280,000 women in this country will be diagnosed with the disease and 43,600 will die from breast cancer.

Two medical malpractice insurance providers – CRICO and The Doctors Company – conducted a joint study on breast cancer misdiagnosis (“Navigating Risks in Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment”). Researchers reviewed close to 600 breast cancer medical malpractice claims filed between 2009 and 2014.

More than half of those cases involved a delayed diagnosis of breast cancer. The study found poor patient assessments involving diagnostic issues were the leading factor.  The top two diagnostic errors were:

  • Misinterpretation of diagnostic studies
  • A delay or failure in ordering diagnostic tests

A 2020 study also found that the chances for a breast cancer patient’s death increased approximately 8% for every four-week delay of a partial or full mastectomy (“Mortality Due to Cancer Treatment Delay: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”).

Errors Following Abnormal Mammogram Results

Mammograms are the standard test for detecting breast cancer.  Another published analysis (“Delayed or Failure to Follow-up Abnormal Breast Cancer Screening Mammograms in Primary Care: A Systematic Review”), released this year, warns of a medical error involving mammograms. The error is inadequate follow-up after an abnormal breast cancer mammogram screening result.

The researchers reviewed nearly 20 previous studies of abnormal mammograms over a 30-year period beginning in 1990. The studies included only women without previous or current breast cancer diagnoses. More than 80% of the mammograms were conducted in primary care settings.

The study notes that primary care physicians in the United States play a key role in preventive care, such as breast cancer screening mammograms, and are responsible for communicating to patients any abnormal mammogram results and recommending appropriate follow-up actions.

The study sought to identify the contributing factors to inadequate primary care physician follow-up after an abnormal mammogram, noting it has been linked to patient harm, including patient deaths.

Inadequate Follow-Up to Abnormal Mammogram Result

What is inadequate follow-up after an abnormal breast cancer mammogram? According to the compilation of the studies reviewed, examples include:

  • Failure of a primary care physician to inform patient of the abnormal mammogram result
  • Primary care physician who is unaware of the results or had no follow-up plan in place

Many patients fail to have follow-up visits after an abnormal mammogram result.  Some studies found rates as high as 33% of patients with no follow-up visit within three months and over 70% with no follow-up visit within six months after the abnormal mammogram results.

A portion of the patients had personal challenges that may have contributed to their lack of follow-up visits, such as transportation, childcare, loss of income, and cost issues.

Factors Causing Inadequate Mammogram Follow-Up

But the researchers identified other factors tied to health care providers that accounted for the lack of medical follow-up after a worrisome mammogram.

One factor was information overload. Electronic health records (EHR) are digital versions of patient health records.  Several previous studies included in this new research found that primary care physicians could be inundated with a slew of patient records included in EHRs, and therefore worrisome mammogram results may be overlooked.

One study found that 90% of the primary care physicians reported they could not access patient test results, which led to a lack of adequate follow-up.

A primary care physician’s lack of experience also was determined to be a factor. Lesser experienced primary care physicians tended to be less aware of an abnormal mammogram result and have an adequate follow-up plan for the patient.

When physicians make serious errors, such as a missed or delayed diagnosis of breast cancer, they are providing sub-standard medical care. If you had a family member die during medical treatment and believe an error was made, speak with a wrongful death attorney about your legal rights to just compensation from all those responsible.

The choice of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertisements.

Authored by Gray Ritter Graham, posted in Articles October 11, 2021

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