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Is overdiagnosing medical malpractice?

Our Connecticut residents have likely read or heard of cases where a healthcare provider misdiagnosed an illness leading either to delayed treatment and progression of disease or resulted in unnecessary treatment and invasive medical procedures. In both instances, depending on the facts of the case, the patient could have suffered harm due to the misdiagnosis and the patient and their loved ones could potentially have a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctor.

If misdiagnosis of a disease can result in a medical malpractice lawsuit, then by extension one may wonder if overdiagnosing a patient can also potentially result in a lawsuit? To understand the implications of overdiagnosing, it is important to define what overdiagnosing is.

According to a letter published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, overdiagnosing is defined as diagnosis of an illness which even if left untreated would not result in the demise of the patient the said illness was diagnosed in. For instance, if a specialist finds indolent or slow growing cancer they may treat the patient with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation or a combination of all three to address it even though it is not aggressive at the time of the discovery. Depending on the type of cancer, whether to treat or not treat depends on many factors including general acceptance on what to do in the medical community. However, in many cases, the decision to treat or not treat is not clear-cut and there is not accepted methodology to distinguish between indolent and aggressive cancers for instance.

A medical malpractice lawsuit is based on the legal theory of negligence. Thus, a patient must show that the doctor had a duty toward the patient and that the duty was breached due to action or inaction on part of the doctor, and due to the breach the patient suffered harm. Presently, medical malpractice lawsuits stemming from misdiagnosis such as false-positives and false-negatives occur, whether overdiagnosing can result in a medical malpractice lawsuit remains to be seen.

Source: American Journal of Roentgenology, "Mediolegal - Malpractice and Ethical Issues in Radiology Overdiagnosis, False-Positive Findings, and Malpractice," Leonard Berlin, accessed on Sept. 8, 2015

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