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Patient Misdiagnosis

How Common is Patient Misdiagnosis?

The Health Professions Council of South Africa has noted an increase in patient misdiagnosis complaint over the last few years. Misdiagnosis is serious as it could lead to prescription of the wrong treatments, which could permanently harm the health of patients.

Some conditions, like lymphoma for instance, have symptoms similar to other serious conditions such as TB, often making it difficult to correctly diagnose the condition. The SA Medical Journal also published an article in 2013 regarding such, detailing the risks for patients receiving TB treatment when they indeed have lymphoma, a potentially curable disease (S Afr Med J 2013;103(1):32-33. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.6093). 

Misdiagnosis is not necessarily malpractice because several factors must be taken into consideration when determining whether it is indeed the result of negligence on the part of the practitioner. Factors include whether the patient’s health history has been disclosed, medications that the patient used at the time without disclosing usage that could have affected the symptoms, whether the doctor followed the correct procedures for diagnosis, and whether the patient suffered significant injury and damages.

Every misdiagnosis case is unique and patients who believe that they have suffered injury and damages as the result thereof should seek legal guidance from an experienced medical attorney. Patients can also bring the matter to the attention of the HPCSA and can take further legal steps should the government fail to pay out on damages.

An IOM report released in 2015 indicated that around 12 million instances of patient misdiagnosis occur annually in the USA, a country with a well-developed healthcare sector. The Global Initiative for Asthma listed South Africa as the country with the fourth highest death rate associated with asthma among patients in the age group 5-35. Concern has been noted, however, about the possibility of misdiagnosis of the condition and thus treatment for the wrong medical condition. It has been documented that conditions that can be misdiagnosed for asthma range from heart attacks and pulmonary embolism, to pneumonia, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even panic attacks.

Misdiagnosis is serious as it can lead to a delay in treatment of the real condition. If a medical practitioner, for instance, misdiagnoses a blood clot in the patient’s lung as asthma, it is exceptionally serious and the delayed treatment of the condition can lead to death. If the patient has not suffered physical injury and financial damage, one has to reconsider whether legal steps are necessary. The patient, however, still has the right to complain to HPCSA about the instance.

Patients have certain rights, including the right to quality healthcare that they can afford and having the right to choose a healthcare provider, to be treated with dignity, to receive relevant medical treatment from a qualified and competent healthcare professional, to accept or to refuse a treatment and to be informed about risks related to a treatment, as well as possible side-effects and alternatives to the treatment. Patients also have the right to expect that their patient information will be treated as confidential, and they have the right to get a second opinion.

Where the rights of patients are violated, they can complain about the healthcare service provider to the HPCSA, or they can take legal steps in getting compensation for damages suffered, including damages related to patient misdiagnosis.

If you have suffered due to a misdiagnosis and feel that you may have a case against the healthcare provider, seek legal counsel. Contact our team at Adele van der Walt Incorporated.


Please note that the information in this article is of a general nature and not intended as legal advice. We strongly recommend speaking to our attorneys first before solely relying on the information to make a decision.

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