4 ways to avoid the risk of malpractice lawsuits from false positive tests

False positives from patients’ tests are not uncommon and can have devastating results.

Take the case of a Maine man who was told he had pancreatic cancer and had just months to live based on pathology results and a CT scan. Devastated by the diagnosis, Medscape reports that he took time off from his job and anguished about his family’s future. In fact, he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was awarded $200,000 from a jury after he sued the hospital and doctor for negligence.

False positives are commonplace in medicine, but the good news for doctors is that malpractice cases based mainly on such occurrences are relatively infrequent, according to the article. "We've identified only 24 such cases since 2007," Darrell Ranum, vice president of patient safety and risk management for The Doctors Company in Napa, California, the nation's largest liability insurer for physicians, told Medscape. Almost all the cases involved unnecessary surgery as a result of a false positive test.

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There are ways that doctors can protect themselves against the risk of a malpractice lawsuit, including the following:

  • Educate patients about the likelihood of false positives. As part of the informed consent process, make patients aware of the possibility of a false positive before they undergo a procedure. 
  • Follow professional guidelines for screening and diagnostic testing, where protocols call for confirmation of initial diagnoses. Conduct further evaluation if a positive result is not consistent with a patient’s physical, history and overall clinical picture. Repeat the test, obtain more information from the patient, and consider other tests, suggests Bill Kanich, M.D., an emergency medicine physician.
  • Communicate with other doctors including pathologists and radiologists when a questionable test result occurs, said Ranum. Be aware of causes for false positive results. For instance, tattoo ink can effect the result of PET-CT findings.
  • Be sure patients are notified of test results in a timely manner. Electronic medical records can set up reminders for follow-studies or appointments, Ranum said.