Debbie Plank didn’t have to die. That’s what jurors said as they awarded her husband, Timothy Plank, $8 million in damages. He filed a wrongful death suit against the hospital his high school sweetheart went to for treatment. The mother of three died because of diagnostic error, what her husband called a “senseless mistake.”
Wife made several visits to hospital
Debbie made three trips to the emergency room at her local hospital. On the first, she was diagnosed with a minor intestinal blockage after an x-ray was taken. She ultimately died from gangrene in her stomach, which was caused by a perforation in her bowel.
Her physician, Dr. Joseph Pavlik, was not found negligent. However, the medical review board did assign fault to Dr. Pavlik, saying that he “failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care.”
He was one of 14 physicians Mrs. Plank went to for help she didn’t receive, according to her husband. The x-ray was misplaced and “she went to the hospital three times within a week, so over a dozen doctors and never saw the same doctor twice,” according to Plank’s attorney Mike Stephenson.
“Lack of communication between the doctors led to her death,” said Plank.
Institute of Medicine Study shows diagnostic errors account for 1 in 10 patient deaths
“Diagnostic errors” are mistakes made by medical personnel that result in wrong or delayed diagnoses. They are the most common type of medical mistake. They are more common than medication errors or surgical mistakes. The Institute of Medicine says that these errors account for about one in 10 patient deaths. In addition, hundreds of thousands more patients suffer needlessly because of these mistakes. Diagnostic errors were more likely to result in disability and death than other types of errors.
“Missed” diagnoses the most common type of error
The most common type of diagnostic error is the missed diagnosis, followed by the “late” diagnosis and the incorrect diagnosis. David Newman-Toker, Associate Professor of Neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, reviewed more than 25 years of medical malpractice payouts and then reported findings in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety.
What causes diagnostic errors to happen?
- Lack of communication between patients, families, and health care professionals
It’s true that some patients don’t want to participate in their own care and simply want the healthcare professional to “fix them.” However, most patients are not only willing but eager to participate in their care; they can contribute valuable information that will help healthcare professionals give diagnoses that are both accurate and quick.
The report encourages patients to engage with their providers; those providers should also see patients and their families as true partners and team members. Together, doctors and their patients can work together to find an accurate diagnosis.
Patient education is key
How should that happen? Through patient education. While patients are usually not aware of the diagnostic process, they can be taught enough to fully participate in the process.
- Health information technology can hinder proper diagnosis
Although health information technology can help doctors access and apply knowledge so they can arrive at a proper diagnosis, it doesn’t always. If it’s not properly designed and implemented, it can actually lead to misdiagnosis.
- Threat of liability can get in the way of proper diagnosis
The threat of liability from misdiagnosis can lead to poor reporting – but the opposite should actually be true. Reporting adverse events early (rather than delaying or hiding them) should become the norm coupled with plans to prevent recurrences.
How patients can help prevent their own diagnostic errors
What condition(s) does the doctor suspect the patient has? Why? What are the reasons for the diagnosis? What other conditions have similar symptoms?
- Bring an advocate
If the patient is unable or unwilling to ask detailed questions, the advocate can – and can take detailed notes during the visit, as well.
- Make a list
Patients should list all symptoms from head to toe. Make note of signs and symptoms that are especially concerning. What time of day do they occur? How long do they last? Provide this information to the physician during the examination.
- Write up a medical history
Include past surgeries, medical problems, medications, allergies, or medical conditions the doctor should know about.
- Follow up with the physician
It happens. Tests are done, but doctors may not read test results right away when they come in. Call in and ask for test results, and be persistent. Ask for copies, and keep them with personal records.
- Get a second opinion
If a visit to the doctor or a test(s) does not provide a satisfactory answer, get a second opinion.
If injury or death occurs
If injury or even death has occurred because of diagnostic error, consult a Chicago medical malpractice attorney about your case.