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Can differential diagnoses result in medical malpractice?

Last week this Houston medical malpractice legal blog touched generally on the dangerous problem of doctors' failure to diagnose the conditions of their patients. This week's post will explore this topic more fully and will examine one possible reason that doctors may make this sometimes fatal error when they use differential diagnoses to assess their patients' conditions.

To begin, a differential diagnosis is effectively a list of possible diagnoses that may apply to the symptoms that a patient presents to a medical professional. For example, a patient who comes to the doctor with a sore elbow may suffer from a mild strain or a break of one of the relevant bones. The patient's condition could potentially suggest a more serious problem such as cancer or an autoimmune disorder, and through an examination of the patient and the medical evidence they present, a doctor will work down the differential diagnosis list to the diagnosis that most likely applies to the patient.

In many cases the differential diagnosis process gets doctors to their patients' true ailments in a timely and professional manner. However, in some cases doctors fail to consider all of the possible ailments that may affect their patients. Doctors may choose not to order tests or analyses that could give them important information about their patients' conditions, and through their omissions may miss critical data that could lead them to the proper diagnoses for their patients.

If a doctor exercises reasonable care as a reasonably prudent doctor would under similar circumstances and still misses or fails to diagnose a patient's condition, the act may not rise to the level of medical malpractice. If, however, a doctor does not act reasonably or in conformity to the standard of the profession and through such actions causes a patient to suffer harm, it is possible that the doctor may be liable for medical malpractice based on the failure to diagnose the patient's condition.

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