What Causes a Delayed Diagnosis?

Published on Apr 22, 2022 at 1:53 pm in Medical Malpractice.

Stethoscope next to laptop

When we see doctors complaining of certain symptoms, we expect them to be able to take our medical history, a listing of current complaints, and perhaps run some additional testing to reach a diagnosis.

However, in some instances, physicians misdiagnose patients as having one condition and treat them for it and later learn that their initial diagnosis was wrong. Situations like these are referred to as misdiagnoses. This phenomenon often goes hand-in-hand with a delayed diagnosis, a situation that can result in patients experiencing unnecessary adverse health outcomes or dying.

What Is a Delayed Diagnosis?

Any situation in which there’s a lag in a patient receiving treatment for their symptoms may constitute a delayed diagnosis.

We mentioned above that misdiagnoses and delayed ones are often closely related. A misdiagnosis may result in a patient’s actual condition going undiagnosed for longer than it should. A patient may experience a worsening of their medical condition as a result.

How Common Are Delayed Diagnoses?

A U.S. News & World Report study once suggested that 5% of patients who sought outpatient care each year received either a wrong or delayed diagnosis. That same report also detailed how one in ten patient deaths was attributable to diagnostic errors.

What Are Common Reasons Delayed Diagnoses Happen?

Doctors may delay in diagnosing patients’ conditions for a few different reasons:

  • Medical team incompetence or overconfidence
  • Physicians taking too little time with patients
  • Health care facility understaffing
  • A lack of or mishandling of testing

Diagnostic errors, such as missed or delayed diagnoses, may also occur because medical team members fail to follow up with patients to see whether their presenting concerns are improving.

Are Some Medical Conditions’ Diagnoses More Delayed Than Others?

Two medical conditions that often go misdiagnosed and thus end up with patients receiving delayed diagnoses include:


A recent Journal of Clinical Oncology study detailed how misdiagnoses occur in 28% of cancer cases. At least 44% of those misdiagnoses involve specific types of cancers.

There are four different cancers that researchers determined doctors are more apt to confuse for other less deadly conditions. These include:

  • Breast cancer: Doctors tend to initially misdiagnose patients’ cancerous masses in their breasts as benign cysts, inflammation, or fibrocystic changes instead of cancer.
  • Lung cancer: Physicians often assign patients tuberculosis, pneumonia, or other respiratory infection diagnoses before ultimately determining they have cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer: Doctors may tell patients that they’re suffering from pancreatitis, gallbladder disease, or inflammatory bowel disease instead before reaching a diagnosis with this very aggressive form of cancer.
  • Colorectal cancer: Ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and hemorrhoids are just a few conditions doctors may tell a patient that they are suffering from before ultimately assigning them the correct colon or rectal cancer diagnosis.

There are many doctors involved in a patient ultimately receiving a cancer diagnosis. There’s perhaps a general practitioner who refers a patient to a specialist. Radiologists often become involved in performing ultrasound-guided biopsies and reading imaging studies, such as mammograms, MRIs, X-rays, and CT scans. Pathologists analyze specimens under a microscope to confirm a diagnosis and whether a cancerous mass is malignant or benign or if it has been fully removed.

A cancer misdiagnosis may occur at any step within the diagnostic process outlined above. Any misdiagnosis may result in a patient not being apprised of or receiving the treatment they need to avert the progression of their condition, thus resulting in potential metastasis. This is a common outcome in delayed cancer diagnosis cases and may leave patients with few treatment options that can preserve their lives.

Heart Disease or Cardiac Arrest

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women, ahead of cancer, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses. At least 333,000 women lose their lives to heart-related conditions such as cardiac arrest every year. Research shows that women’s chances of surviving heart attacks are far less than they are for men.

Researchers believe that one of the most common reasons women die of cardiovascular conditions at a higher rate than men is attributable to misdiagnoses. Studies show that doctors fail to recognize that women present with different heart attack symptoms from men.

Women suffering a cardiac event may have the following symptoms:

  • Arm discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Acid reflux
  • Jaw discomfort
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath

Men may experience symptoms individuals typically consider to be heart attack-related, including left arm discomfort and chest pressure.

Physicians may assign women a different diagnosis, such as a panic attack, heartburn, or something far more minor than cardiac arrest, if they don’t perform additional testing based on their presenting concerns. Doctors may send these women home to self-treat these “non-life-threatening” conditions, often leaving them to suffer a premature death once home.

Doctors’ diagnostic errors are sometimes discovered with enough time for a correct one to still be rendered. However, delayed diagnoses often result in irreversible damage to a patient’s health.

Do Some Doctors Make Diagnostic Errors More Than Others?

Emergency room (ER) physicians and radiologists are most apt to incorrectly diagnose patients.

Emergency Room Physicians

One of the most common reasons ER doctors misdiagnose patients resulting in a delay in them finding out what they’re suffering from has to do with not ordering diagnostic tests or at least the right ones quickly enough. Studies show that this results in 53% of misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis cases in the ER.

Inadequate assessment and management of patient care each account for 32% and 33% of missed or delayed diagnosis ER cases.


Research suggests that at least 36% of patients who end up returning to the ER with unresolved symptoms within days after their discharge do so because of the radiologist’s inaccurate readings of their imaging studies. Radiologists involved in reading such scans in non-ER environments have a 12% misdiagnosis rate.

Radiologists most commonly misdiagnose either neurologic or digestive diseases, which may explain why individuals suffering from such concerns often have far more dismal survival rates than others. It may have to do with them receiving a delayed diagnosis of the correct medical ailment.

How Does a Medical Malpractice Attorney Help Their Clients?

Patients, unfortunately, suffer adverse outcomes all the time. While some of those situations are attributable to diagnostic errors, many are not.

Determining whether a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis resulted in a patient’s health decline or demise often requires someone with a trained eye accustomed to looking for negligence by combing through medical records. Our medical malpractice attorneys here at Pittman Roberts & Welsh, PLLC have this requisite experience.

It’s likely that doctors’ offices and hospitals will pull out all the stops to fight liability in your Mississippi delayed diagnosis case. No medical malpractice lawyer on our team is intimidated by the defensive tactics these health care facilities use. Nothing stops us from aggressively fighting for just compensation in our clients’ cases.

You have already likely been through enough after a delayed diagnosis event. Contact us to discuss your options for filing a lawsuit that may allow you to recover compensation.

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