Misread chest X-ray at the heart of $16.7 million malpractice award

The misread X-ray of a woman who ultimately died from lung cancer has resulted in a multimillion dollar malpractice award.

A jury awarded $16.7 million to Johnette Ellis, whose mother Jeanne died in 2008, according to the Boston Globe. Ellis sued Peter Clarke, M.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital, after Clarke failed to appropriately interpret a chest X-ray for Jeanne Ellis conducted in 2006 after she visited the emergency room complaining about a cough.

A year later, a CT scan showed that Jeanne Ellis had advanced lung cancer. By the time of her death, the cancer had spread to her kidney, liver, spine and pubic bone.

In the malpractice case against Clarke, Johnette Ellis's attorney presented evidence that the original chest X-ray showed a 1.5-centimeter nodule in Jeanne Ellis's right lung, according to the Globe. However, Clarke's attorney said that the physician's interpretation of the image was appropriate.

Research published in Psychological Science in February 2013 found that radiologists struggled to identify a gorilla on a CT lung scan.

For the study, researchers asked radiologists to exam five lung CT scans, each of which had about 10 nodules or abnormalities. On the last scan a dancing gorilla roughly 48 times the typical size of a nodule was placed in the upper right quadrant. While the radiologists were able to find the correct nodules the majority of the time, more than 80 percent of them were unable to see the gorilla.

The radiologists, according to lead study author Trafton Drew, were so intent on looking for cancer nodules, and not gorillas, that what they were focusing on so aggressively shaped what they saw--a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness.

Last month, U.S. Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) wrote a letter to the acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs asking for an investigation into possible irregularities in the radiology department at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia. The letter followed a televised report on WAGT that raised allegations--based on an anonymous letter received by NBC station--that a radiologist at the medical center had consistently misread patient scans, leading to incorrect diagnoses and unnecessary medical procedures.

To learn more:
- see the article in the Boston Globe