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Top Reasons for Missed Diagnosis

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Gavel, notebook and stethoscope on the white table

Some top reasons for missed diagnosis in healthcare settings include doctor error or negligence. When people suffer symptoms of an ailment, many seek medical attention to diagnose and treat their conditions. Sometimes, however, doctors may fail to determine the cause of a health concern. This leads to a delay in treatment, which can allow a victim’s condition to worsen.

Gavel, notebook and stethoscope on the white table

What Is a Missed Diagnosis?

A missed diagnosis refers to a situation in which a healthcare provider overlooks a medical condition, neglecting to diagnose it. The patient may describe his or her symptoms, and possibly undergo testing. However, his or her healthcare team fails to diagnose the patient with the right, or even the wrong, ailment.

For example, a patient presents complaining of an upset stomach and abdominal pain. The doctor runs some basic tests, but does not make a diagnosis. Instead, the physician may have deduced the patient’s symptoms were merely in his or her head, or that the patient was seeking pain medications to abuse.

Missed diagnoses are often confused with misdiagnosis in healthcare. A misdiagnosis differs in that it occurs when a physician incorrectly diagnoses a patient’s condition. For instance, diagnosing a patient with gastroenteritis when he or she has stomach cancer. Statistics of misdiagnosis are often mixed with those of missed diagnoses for error reporting purposes.

As a result of a missed diagnosis, patients often do not get the care they need in a timely manner, or at all. Consequently, their ailments may progress to life-threatening conditions.

How Might a Missed Diagnosis Occur?

Ranging factors regularly contribute to the occurrence of missed diagnoses. While some of these factors are outside of healthcare providers’ control, others are a direct result of medical professionals’ negligent acts or omissions in caring for their patients. Some of the most common of these include: diagnostic errors, miscommunication, incorrect tests, and atypical symptoms. 


Miscommunication, whether between medical providers and patients or other healthcare professionals, is a common factor in missed diagnosis cases. For instance, sometimes a doctor overlooks an important detail in a patient’s description of his or her symptoms, or the patient may struggle to describe his or her symptoms. Consequently, the physician may lack the necessary information to make a diagnosis.

Incorrect Tests

Ordering the wrong tests can contribute to healthcare providers missing diagnosing patients. Often, physicians use diagnostic tests, in addition to physical examinations, to diagnose patients. For instance, these may include blood testing, hemoglobin A1C labs, genetic marker testing, x-rays or other imaging, and biopsies. 

When they do not order the correct tests, medical professionals may lack the information they need to correctly diagnose their patients. Ordering the wrong tests, or failing to order tests altogether, can lead to a delay of cancer treatments or other medical care that may be essential to a patient’s recovery and a favorable prognosis.

Diagnostic Errors

The factors that cause missed diagnoses sometimes occur during the diagnostic process. Based on its findings, a recent study estimates that diagnostic errors occur approximately 1,400 times per year in emergency departments across the U.S. These types of errors often occur due to misinterpreting examination findings or test results. For example, a doctor may read a test incorrectly, resulting in him or her failing to identify the potential cause of the patient’s symptoms. 

Atypical Symptoms

There’s substantial uncertainty in making some diagnoses. Thousands of medical conditions have been discovered and are known to exist. However, there are only so many symptoms patients may suffer. Therefore, many symptoms can be indicative of several, varying conditions. A patient goes to the doctor complaining of dizziness, for instance. While this is a symptom of stroke, it is not one of the classic signs. Consequently, doctors may miss diagnosing the patient as currently having or having had a stroke.

Consequences of a Missed Diagnosis

A missed diagnosis can have dire consequences for patients. Some conditions may resolve on their own with time. Others, however, require timely treatment to avoid them progressing to cause detrimental, and potentially permanent, effects. Infections, cancer, and cardiac events, for example, must be treated promptly to help ensure the best outcomes for patients.

When healthcare professionals miss making a diagnosis, patients may never receive the treatment they need. In some cases, this can lead to serious illness or death. Patients, or the families of those who die when missed diagnosis occurs due to negligence, may consider pursuing compensation for their associated losses with the help of Chicago medical malpractice lawyers.

Who Is Responsible for a Missed Diagnosis?

Responsibility for losses caused by a missed diagnosis may fall to various parties, depending on the circumstances of the missed diagnosis. When medical negligence is the cause, the healthcare professionals are involved with the injured patient’s care or the facilities where the care was provided.

For a missed diagnosis to be the responsibility of the medical provider or facility, it must meet the standards of medical malpractice.

Recovering Damages for Missed Diagnosis

To sue a doctor for medical malpractice after a missed diagnosis, claimants must prove four primary elements – duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages. 

Proving a duty of care establishes the responsibility owed by the doctor to his or her patient. In agreeing to treat the patient, the doctor agrees to provide the quality of care, skills, and level of diligence expected of a reasonably competent physician under the circumstances.

To establish a wrong for which they are due compensation, injured patients must prove that their doctor’s actions, or omissions, breached the duty of care they were owed through the missed diagnosis. They must also establish through their cases that their injuries or illnesses were a direct result of that breach. The affidavit of merit for medical malpractice may aid in proving these elements, as it includes a sworn statement from a qualified physician. In this statement, the healthcare expert will attest that the facts of the case are meritorious for legal action.

About the Author

Kurt D. Lloyd is a plaintiff’s trial lawyer who focuses on medical malpractice and other catastrophic injury cases. He lives in Chicago and represents injured clients throughout Illinois. He is also the founder of Lloyd Miller Law, Ltd.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

Kurt D. Lloyd is a plaintiff’s trial lawyer who focuses on medical malpractice and other catastrophic injury cases. He lives in Chicago and represents injured clients throughout Illinois. He is also the founder of Lloyd Miller Law, Ltd.

Years of Experience: Over 35 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar Admissions: Illinois State Bar