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Cancer Misdiagnoses More Rampant Than We Think

cancer misdiagnosisThis month, American author Susan Gubar published a particularly candid piece in the New York Times that illustrated her frustrations and challenges in dealing with missed diagnosis of her ovarian cancer. Often known as the “silent killer,” her cancer wasn’t caught until the later stages, since symptoms are often vague and detection tools relatively archaic. Thinking she was suffering from menopause-related issues, her general practitioner recommended a high fiber diet, but after a year had passed, a CT scan finally revealed that Gubar had advanced ovarian cancer – treatable but not entirely curable.

Gubar partly blames herself for ignoring her body’s subtle warning signs, and is trying to forgive doctors who may have let her down. Tales of such misdiagnoses are rampant in U.S. hospitals, where patients routinely suffer the ramifications of a cancer misdiagnosis – missing that crucial period of time when the disease is at its most treatable stage. Now, four years into her grueling chemotherapy treatments, Gubar is bravely fighting her illness while highlighting the need for more accurate diagnostic tools, especially among younger, healthy patients.

Thousands suffer the consequences of a cancer diagnosis error

Among the many causes of misdiagnosis in the medical community are doctor complacency, unreliable detection tools and substandard pathology tests, lack of expertise, limited time with patients, fragmented informational systems, and patient repression. For most patients a cancer misdiagnosis renders catastrophic consequences as they are more inclined to need invasive, surgical treatments and have less likelihood of beating the disease – or, at the opposite end of the spectrum – were subjected to radiation or chemotherapy that was never needed in the first place.

A recent study published by the Boston-based Best Doctors, Inc. demonstrates how physicians view cancer diagnosis errors today. In their survey nearly 61 percent of doctors thought that cancer misdiagnosis rates hovered between 0 and 10 percent – a stark contrast to the estimated 28 percent of errors as calculated by the BMJ Quality and Safety journal.  The survey further showed that physicians thought lymphoma was the most frequently misdiagnosed cancer, followed by breast cancer, sarcomas, melanomas, and cancer of an unknown origin.

Best Doctor’s chairman and CEO David Seligman says that physician apathy is not a root cause of cancer misdiagnosis, stating “[But] doctors today are increasingly time-strapped. Many of them are seeing up to 30 patients a day. They’re working in an overburdened health system with fractured or incomplete medical records. All of these things too often directly impact health outcomes – no matter how dedicated or skilled the physician may be.”

Misdiagnoses add costs to U.S. healthcare

Beyond the devastating costs cancer misdiagnoses cause in terms of human life, they are also costing the U.S. health care system more than $700 billion each year – wasted funds that are spent on the wrong medicines and treatments.  National Coalition on Health Care President John Rother acknowledges this growing problem, citing the need for change.

“Not enough is being done on the state and federal policy end of things to acknowledge and firmly address this critical issue. Given our current health care climate and challenges, as decision-makers become more aware of the frequency of misdiagnosis and the enormous costs associated with it, they have a sizeable opportunity to make diagnostic accuracy much more of a ‘front and center’ issue in health care,” said Rother.

As for Susan Gubar, she is currently in remission from her ovarian cancer, but is raising awareness of the plight faced by misdiagnosis victims. More than two decades have passed since the FDA has approved a new treatment or drug for ovarian cancer, and for many women, the disease is a death sentence.