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Cancer and the threat of a missed diagnosis

For Massachusetts residents, the diagnosis of cancer may be a worst-case scenario. When doctors make a mistake in diagnosis, however, the chances of successful treatment often decrease significantly. A doctor’s failure to diagnose cancer can have devastating effects on both the patient and his or her family.

ABC News reports that each year, more than a million people receive diagnoses of cancer. However, a Johns Hopkins Hospital research team noted misclassification in up to 20 percent of cancer cases and misdiagnosis in “one out of every 71 cases.” Such errors can lead to deadly mistakes in treatment.

There are two primary sources of error in cases where cancer is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. One source is the pathologist, who may have difficulty interpreting the biopsy if he or she does not specialize in the suspected variety of cancer. Additionally, errors in biopsies of breast, skin, prostate and female reproductive tissues are particularly common. When in doubt, the patient’s best option is to seek a second opinion. 

According to a recent study discussed by Live Science, missed diagnoses are the motivators behind one quarter to nearly two thirds of medical malpractice suits in many developed countries, including the United States. In these cases, patients with missed or misdiagnosed diseases may have bleak outlooks. Cancer is not the only disease that is commonly missed, but lung, breast and colon cancer, as well as melanoma, are at the top of the list.

This study aims to improve management of risk within medical practice, which holds promises of significant benefits for both doctors and patients. Patients will not only enjoy better chances of catching and treating cancer early through accurate diagnosis, but they may also experience lower healthcare costs as the need for “defensive medicine” decreases. Currently, doctors are inclined to practice defensively, minimizing the risk of malpractice charges by ordering unnecessary testing, even in cases where cancer (or another suspected disease) is not present. This practice frequently creates a significant financial burden for patients. 

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