delayed diagnosis

Doctors aren’t magicians and – much as we wish they did – they don’t always have the answers. This doesn’t make them guilty of malpractice. 

However, there are situations where misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose a medical condition or even a delay in diagnosis constitutes medical malpractice.

Below we cover:

If you may have a medical malpractice claim against a doctor, hospital or other healthcare provider in South Africa, contact us at DSC Attorneys for expert legal advice and representation.

When is misdiagnosis considered medical malpractice?

Given their training and experience, it’s considered reasonable to expect doctors to recognise and correctly treat common medical conditions.

In some cases, diagnostic errors can lead to unnecessary harm.

For example, misdiagnosis may result in inappropriate procedures and treatments being administered.

It can also lead to delays in patients receiving the treatment they need. This could cause further complications or even death.

If a medical expert should reasonably have been able to identify and diagnose your condition – and failure to do resulted directly in harm – you might have grounds for a malpractice claim.

Common types of diagnostic errors

Just about any medical condition can be misdiagnosed. The question of malpractice arises when the condition should have been fairly easy to diagnose, given the proper tests and medical expertise.

Certain types of misdiagnoses are fairly common. Examples of these are:

  • cancer misdiagnoses, which can lead to unnecessary and painful treatments
  • asthma, which may be incorrectly diagnosed as recurring bronchitis
  • heart attack, which may be mistaken for indigestion or panic attacks
  • staph infection, which is sometimes misdiagnosed as flu
  • a stroke, which may be misdiagnosed as a migraine, especially in a younger patient.

What can cause a medical misdiagnosis?

Misdiagnoses are generally caused by oversights or errors in the diagnostic process.

Oversights by a medical professional

Some examples of oversights leading to medical malpractice claims include:

  • not referring a patient to a specialist
  • misinterpreting lab test results
  • lack of consultation with the patient with regards to their symptoms
  • not following up or investigating potential causes of symptoms
  • not screening for a particular medical condition.

Mistakes in diagnostic tests

In some cases, misdiagnosis – or failure to diagnose a condition – occurs because a doctor relies on inaccurate test results.

This may occur due to faulty diagnostic equipment or human error.

For instance, samples may be mixed up. A technician may fail to follow proper testing procedure or overlook something in an X-ray or slide.

Test results may also be mixed up or communicated incorrectly.

In this type of scenario, an authority other than the doctor – such as a laboratory or hospital – might be liable for malpractice.

South African cases involving diagnostic failures

In 2016, the courts found hospital staff negligent for failing to diagnose a perforation of the bowel and resultant sepsis. The plaintiff was ordered to pay the defendant damages and legal costs.

A mother lost both of her baby twins after staff at Natalspruit allegedly failed to diagnose or treat the progression of hydrocephalus. In 2021, the courts awarded the mother R536,000 in her personal capacity and R600,000 in her capacity as executor of the estate. The defendant was also ordered to cover costs associated with the case.

Also in 2021, the courts found the Department of Health in the Eastern Cape liable for the failure of hospital staff to diagnose foetal distress and evolving hypoxia/ischaemia, leading to severe bradycardia, in a baby girl.

Wrong diagnosis: when to pursue a medical malpractice claim

You may have a medical malpractice claim if:

  • a doctor misdiagnosed or failed to diagnose your condition
  • the wrong or delayed diagnosis occurred due to negligence or an improper diagnostic process, and
  • this led directly to personal injury or harm.

For example, misdiagnosis may be grounds for a malpractice claim if expected standards of care aren’t followed and:

  • your condition can no longer be treated, where it could plausibly have been treated or even cured had it been caught sooner
  • delayed diagnosis gives time for preventable complications to develop, leading to serious harm
  • misdiagnosis results in unnecessary medical intervention, such as unnecessary surgical procedures, and these have harmful consequences.
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Medical malpractice claims

At DSC Attorneys, we specialise in medical malpractice claims. Our personal injury attorneys and medico-legal team can assess your claim, help prepare supporting evidence and represent you in legal proceedings – and we work on a no win, no fee basis. Contact us for the very best legal support and representation.

See if you have a claim