Fewer than 4 percent of physicians in the United States are radiologists, but according to the Physicians Insurers Association of America, between 1985 and 2002, the specialty ranked sixth in the number of medical malpractice claims.
Radiologists are defendants in a professional negligence lawsuit more often than cardiologists, plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, and gastroenterologists. Of the specialties that are more liable to be sued for medical negligence (for example, obstetrics and gynecology, general surgery, and internists), all have more practitioners than radiology.
The statistics are alarming. One study evaluated previously “normal” chest x-rays of patients who were subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer. It found that in 90 percent of those cases the cancer was evident months, even years, before the diagnosis but had been missed by the radiologist.
A similar study of mammograms of patients who later developed breast cancer revealed that in 75 percent of cases the tumor was visible on their prior scans but not noticed by the radiologist.
Consider the case of Sue Apsey of Owosso, Michigan. In 2009, a Shiawassee County jury awarded Ms. Apsey nearly $3 million in compensation after her radiologists failed to identify a bowel leak during an operation for ovarian cyst removal. The error was exacerbated by the administration of barium contrast that leaked into her abdominal cavity due to the unrecognized bowel perforation. This caused chemical peritonitis on top of the patient’s existing bacterial infection. Ms. Apsey had to undergo several surgeries and skin grafts as the result of this negligence.
Malpractice complaints against radiologists fall into four main categories:
- Observer errors
- Interpretation errors
- Failure to suggest appropriate follow-up
- Failure to communicate
The most frequently occurring radiological error is a failure to diagnose. This is a type of observer error. It means that obvious abnormalities were present on a scan, but the radiologist overlooked them. Approximately 50 percent of radiologist malpractice claims are on account of a missed diagnosis. Missed fractures and failure to diagnose cancers are the most common reasons for radiologists to be sued.
Another type of allegation against radiologists in medical malpractice claims is an interpretation error. This means the radiologist saw something on an x-ray film or scan, but incorrectly interpreted a malignant (cancerous) lesion to be normal. This could be on account of inexperience or poor vigilance. If the radiologist’s error in judgment or a premature diagnostic conclusion results in harm to the patient, it can give rise to a malpractice claim.
A third type of radiologist negligence is failure to suggest appropriate follow-up. This occurs when an abnormality is detected, but the radiologist fails to advise the patient and the referring physician on the appropriate course of action. The physician who orders a radiographic study more than likely knows what needs to be done in the event of abnormal findings. Nonetheless, it is the radiologist’s responsibility to clarify and confirm the impression and to recommend additional radiographic procedures as appropriate.
Every radiologist is required to send a written report to the referring physician detailing the findings on a patient’s examination. Failure to communicate in a timely and appropriate manner is the fourth most common source of malpractice claims against radiologists. In the event of an adverse outcome for the patient, the radiologist is liable if there was a failure to communicate or the communication was not properly documented.
Along with our team of nurse consultants and qualified outside medical experts, the attorneys in Sommers Schwartz’s Medical Malpractice Litigation Group have years of experience handling radiology malpractice cases. If you believe that you or a loved one has been harmed due a radiologist’s negligence, we can help. Please contact us today!