Radiologist could be liable for failing to communicate cancer diagnosis

Medical malpractice cases are often complex. This is especially true where the case involves a misdiagnosis.

However, what if a diagnosis was correct, but simply never communicated to the patient at all? The recent Illinois Appellate Court case of Buck v. Charletta provides an example.

A deadly diagnosis . . . never communicated

A 49-year-old patient consulted a doctor, complaining of neck pain. The doctor ordered a magnetic resonance imaging scan of the patient's spine. After the MRI was completed, the images were sent to a radiologist for interpretation.

The radiologist prepared and approved a final MRI report which detailed an abnormal finding in the patient's right lung, including a possible malignant lung tumor. The report recommended that follow-up chest radiographs be taken, among other actions.

The medical records indicated that no such follow-ups were done and the patient's tumor went undiagnosed. Approximately one year later, the patient was seen by another doctor who discovered the tumor in her lung. Within a matter of hours, the patient immediately began a course of treatment for lung cancer. Unfortunately, the treatment began too late to save her.

The deceased patient's husband brought suit against the radiologist, alleging that the radiologist was negligent in the manner in which he reported his interpretation of the MRI to the patient's initial doctor. According to the suit, the radiologist was required to make a "non-routine, real-time communication" to the doctor to alert him to the clinical significance of the abnormal findings in his report.

The radiologist, primarily relying on testimony that the initial doctor had apparently received the written report, argued that the way the radiologist communicated his findings had not made any difference to the doctor's understanding or actions and therefore the radiologist's method of communication was not the "proximate cause" of death-that is, it was not the actual as well as legal cause of the death.

On that basis, the trial court granted judgment in favor of the radiologist prior to trial, and the husband appealed, seeking his day in court.

Violation of the medical standard of care

The Appellate Court, in reviewing the proceedings, determined that a material issue of genuine fact still existed as to the radiologist's possible liability.

Among other evidence, the patient's husband offered expert witness testimony of what reasonably well-qualified physicians would have done if in the position of the radiologist. Specifically, two experts concurred that the radiologist's failure to communicate the results of his MRI report directly to the surgeon so as to assure his receipt and understanding of the findings in that report both violated the applicable medical standard of care and resulted in the one-year delay in the patient's diagnosis and treatment.

The communication failure may have allowed the radiologist's report to fall between the cracks, to the detriment of the patient, who was ultimately deprived of a full year of treatment for her lung cancer. Thus, the trial court's decision was reversed, and the patient's husband would be allowed his day in court to present his case to a jury.

Accountability for negligent actions

Whether a medical professional misdiagnoses a condition, or simply fails to communicate it adequately due to negligence, the health care providers involved should be held accountable for their medical malpractice.

It is important to seek an attorney experienced in the complexities of medical malpractice who will diligently investigate the circumstances to ensure you and your loved ones receive the compensation they deserve.