When we think about health care providers who might be held responsible for medical malpractice, the doctors and nurses who personally treat patients are the first who normally come to mind. But radiologists – trained physicians who often make diagnoses behind the scenes without necessarily seeing the patient – may be liable for medical errors, too.

Radiologists read and interpret the results of medical images, such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. They usually work in conjunction with physicians, reviewing the results of tests that have been ordered. And, like physicians, radiologists can be sued for professional negligence.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), radiology is a specialty area with a relatively high rate of negligence suits. The claims usually stem from a radiologist’s failure to correctly read and interpret an image (radiographic), but can also be based on a radiologist’s failure to adequately communicate with physicians and patients.

Reading errors by radiologists are typically caused by poor technique, lack of knowledge and experience, or failures of perception. In fact, the NIH indicates that failures to diagnose account for about 40 to 54 percent of radiology-related medical malpractice cases.

Misreading Images

When examining images, radiologists frequently focus on the potential presence of a particular medical issue. Oftentimes, radiologists aren’t looking for other possible problems.

Unfortunately, a radiologist’s mistake can cause serious harm. For example, take a patient who presents to her doctor with flu-like symptoms. The doctor believes the patient indeed has the flu and orders a chest x-ray, to rule out pneumonia. The x-rays are sent to a radiologist, who doesn’t notice a small mass in the patient’s lung and declares the x-ray “normal.” A year later, the patient learns the mass was early-stage lung cancer.

If the mass had been identified by the radiologist, the patient would have had a good chance of survival. But because the cancer wasn’t identified by the radiologist, the patient’s life expectancy has been greatly reduced. In a case like this, the radiologist may liable for malpractice.

Radiologic “misreads” like this are generally of two types: missed fractures or, like in the above scenario, missed cancer. The most commonly missed fractures are in the cervical spine, the femur, and the navicular bone located in the foot. As for cancerous masses, radiologists often fail to recognize bone tumors, colorectal carcinoma on barium enema studies, lung nodules on chest radiographs, or breast lesions on mammograms.

Communication Failures

Radiologists and other health-care professionals have an obligation to communicate effectively with each other, as well as with patients.

But because radiologists issue dozens of reports every day, a radiologist’s message may not get to the physician or the patient. These breakdowns in communication can lead to a medical malpractice claim.

For example, radiologists may issue a preliminary report with normal findings and then issue a full report later, indicating a possible abnormality. However, the treating physician may never actually read the full report. In cases like this, some courts have held the radiologist has a duty to ensure the treating physician, or even the patient, gets the complete information.

If a breakdown in communication between a radiologist and a treating physician causes harm to a patient, it is likely that at least one of the two doctors will be held responsible. Often, the radiologist and physician will share the liability. This means the two doctors will each have to pay a portion of any award or settlement that the patient receives as part of a malpractice lawsuit.