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Be Your Own Medical Advocate: Obtain and Read Diagnostic Test Results

By: Anapol Weiss

The two stories below are real and illustrate the need for all patients to make sure that they obtain and read the interpretative reports for the diagnostic tests that their physicians have them undergo. Obtaining, reading and sharing reports with your regular doctors allows you to act as your own medical advocate and helps prevent medical negligence or even medical misdiagnosis.

A person falls at home and injures his jaw and chest. He goes to the local hospital emergency room (ER), and the ER doctor orders a sophisticated type of x-ray called a CT scan of his jaw and chest. The CT scan of the jaw confirms a fracture, and the scan of the chest is interpreted by the ER physicians as not showing a traumatic injury.

As all radiology studies are also interpreted by a radiologist, the CT scan of the chest is read by a hospital radiologist. He confirms the scan did not show a traumatic injury, but he also writes in his report interpreting the study that the scan of the chest showed a mass highly suspicious for cancer in the right lung. He recommends a follow up diagnostic study to determine if it is indeed cancer.

However, the patient is not told of the radiologist’s interpretation, nor is his primary care physician sent a copy of the report. It is only three years later when the patient consults another physician that the report of the CT scan of the chest is “discovered.” Tragically, when the “suspicious mass” is worked up, it is found to be advanced lung cancer and it has spread to his brain.

In another case, a person falls down stairs and injures his chest. He believes that he had broken a rib in the fall. He is taken to the local ER, and the ER doctor orders a chest x-ray. The ER doctor interprets the x-ray as showing a fractured rib, and he is subsequently discharged from the ER with a prescription for pain medication. However, when the x-ray is interpreted by a radiologist, the radiologist reports that there is a mass seen in the patient’s chest cavity and recommends that he get a CT scan of the chest to determine if it represents a serious medical problem. 

Unfortunately, the patient is not told of the radiologist’s findings or of his recommendation for him to get a follow up diagnostic study. It is not until about 11 months later when the patient again goes to the same ER with complaints of shortness of breath that it is discovered that the mass seen earlier has now grow substantially in size. He is sent for an immediate CT scan of his chest and it reveals that the mass has grown into a very large mass, which is subsequently determined to be non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The patient is started on treatment but the delay in diagnosis has significantly reduced his chance for a cure.

All diagnostic test results and reports, including as interpretations of x-rays or other radiology studies (such as mammograms, CT scans and MRIs), surgical pathology interpretations, cardiac stress tests, blood test results) that show a significant abnormality must be communicated to the patient and his treating doctor. Tragically, diagnostic test results which reveal a serious abnormality are frequently “missed” and are only followed up many months or even years later. Sadly, by the time the “miss” is discovered, the patient has lost a chance for early diagnosis and treatment that would have lead to a better outcome.

If you, a family member or friend has been a victim of this type of medical mistake, contact the attorneys at Anapol Weiss for assistance. We have vast experience in handling these types of medical negligence cases.