Medical Malpractice: A Look into the Ethics of Misdiagnosis

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One of the greatest fears of both patients and medical professionals is that of a serious medical mistake occurring. From bad diagnoses to ER errors, to major surgical complications, there are many things that can go wrong in healthcare facilities. For the patient, there is an obvious threat to their wellbeing with medical mistakes, and for doctors, there is the guilt of unintentionally harming your patient and of course the fear of the medical malpractice lawsuit.

When it comes to diagnoses, in particular, there are two sides to consider as to the ethical side of the matter. Considering the elusive nature of some diseases, there could really have been nothing that any medical professional could have done better. As we all know, mistakes happen. However, the stakes of those mistakes are simply much higher for medical professionals.

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Still, it is important to note that a faulty diagnosis can not only result in the real underlying disease not being treated but can also lead to treatments from the misdiagnosis harm the patient more than doing nothing at all.

Take for example the misdiagnosis of the malignancy of a tumor. If a benign tumor was wrongly diagnosed to be malignant, the patient could undergo months of harsh chemotherapy treatments, not to mention spend tens of thousands of dollars, for nothing. According to a recent study by the federal agency, the National Practitioner Data Bank, 33% of medical malpractice lawsuits today allege errors resulting from misdiagnoses that led to catastrophic injuries and sometimes even death.

Beyond this, John Hopkins University published a study in 2016 that showed that 250,000 people died annually in the US due to medical mistakes, making it the 3rd highest cause of death in America.

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Although the stakes may be significantly higher for medical professionals, they are still humans. It is unreasonable to keep medical professionals at the impossible standard of never making mistakes. Misdiagnoses are going to happen, and no law will be able to change that. To date, states have taken legislative action to ensure that there is a fair balance between medical negligence and malpractice and that of an honest mistake.

For one, doctors in the past had a very dicey situation ahead of them when it came to admitting mistakes. Up until new protections had been passed over the past few decades for doctors, a doctor apologizing for misdiagnosis or any medical mistake whatsoever could and often was used against them in court.

This created an enormous incentive for doctors to never admit fault and actively act against the basic moral foundations of our society of owning up to one’s mistakes. Other states such as California have put caps on settlements for medical malpractice lawsuits, however, the situation is still a difficult one for sure.

Ultimately, there may not be a straightforward answer. Every situation is different with misdiagnoses. While the system may never be perfect, perhaps a ‘good enough’ balance will have to do. That may be an unfortunate answer, but like many things, it’s just the way things are.

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