In diagnosing disease, physicians increasingly rely upon pathologists, medical doctors who specialize in the study of changes in cells, tissue and organs. A specimen taken from a patient, generally by biopsy, will be submitted to a laboratory for microscopic examination by a pathologist, who is asked to offer an opinion whether a disease, often cancer, may or may not be present. Treatment decisions are often made exclusively on the opinion of a pathologist. Pathology errors can constitute medical malpractice that lead to devastating patient injuries.
Pathology errors generally fall within three broad categories. One type is a processing error. Pathology labs are the specimens of numerous patients and those specimens will be handled by different employees. It is well known that processing errors frequently occur, ranging from the intermingling of specimens from different patients to placing the wrong patient’s name on a pathology report that is sent to the treating physician. The other two broad categories involve errors by the pathologist in examining and analyzing a patient’s specimen. A pathologist can offer an opinion that disease is not present when in fact it is (under-reporting) or that disease is present when in fact it is not (over-reporting).
The Pittsburgh medical malpractice law firm of Rosen Louik & Perry has represented many clients who were victims of pathology error. Such error can lead to the failure to timely diagnose various forms of cancer, sometimes leading to wrongful death. Other such errors can lead to the unnecessary removal of healthy organs. The firm recently obtained a verdict of $5.5 million against Dianon Systems and in favor of a husband and wife where the husband’s healthy prostate was removed because of a laboratory processing error. The firm is presently representing a Colorado couple under virtually identical circumstances against Dianon Systems.
A study published in the December 1, 1999 issue of the journal Cancer studied over 6,000 patients and found that one or two of every 100 patients seeking treatment following biopsy have an incorrect diagnosis. Dr. Jonathon Epstein, the Johns Hopkins pathologist who headed the researchers involved in the study, suggested a second pathology opinion be obtained when cancer is reported before surgery or other major therapy.