Hospitals, doctors and surgeons rely on labs every single day. Labs perform critical functions, such as testing tissue for cancerous cells (biopsy) or analyzing blood for infection. However, lab mistakes can and do occur, and oftentimes, the results are catastrophic. A patient may be misdiagnosed with cancer (false positive), or their cancer can go undiagnosed altogether (false negative).
For instance, a patient never learns they have cancer until it is too late and the cancer metastasizes, resulting in death, or a patient may have been told they have cancer, only to find out they never did. Recently, there have been multiple cases of patients who were diagnosed with cancer only to find out later that their samples were mixed up. In fact, there have been multiple highly publicized cases of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer, had mastectomies or double mastectomies, and later discovered that they never had breast cancer to begin with.
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Three Common Reasons for Diagnosis Mistakes (i.e., Lab Mistakes)
Lab mistakes often result in diagnosis mistakes in breast cancer, skin cancer, and colon or rectal cancer cases. In addition, lab mistakes can also result in diagnosis mistakes involving infection and disease cases. For instance, a blood sample is not tested correctly, and as a result, the patient’s infection/disease goes undiagnosed, resulting in serious complications, or worse, death.
Diagnosis errors or lab mistakes often occur due to the following:
- administrative errors (typos, paperwork mix-ups, computer errors),
- lab technician mistakes, and
- mishandling samples.
Admin Errors & Diagnosis Mistakes
One of the most common causes of diagnosis mistakes is admin errors, such as typos, paperwork mix-ups and computer errors. Such errors can occur at the hospital or doctor’s office, or they may occur at the lab. For example, a patient’s name/data may be entered incorrectly on a computer form for a lab result which causes the patient’s sample to be improperly identified. To illustrate: Patient AB is having a lab test performed to test a skin sample for cancer. However, the doctor’s office enters his information as “BA.” BA is another patient at the office. AB’s actual sample is tested and is positive. However, the result is returned to the doctor’s office as BA’s result, not AB’s result. The doctor’s office does not follow up on AB’s missing result, and AB never learns he has skin cancer until it is too late. In this instance, the doctor’s office and/or the lab may be liable for the misdiagnosis and mix-up.
It is important to note that admin mistakes often involve minorities, especially those that do not speak English well. Foreign names and surnames are often entered incorrectly on hospital and medical provider forms. This can cause mix-ups.
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Lab Tech Errors & Diagnosis Mistakes
Lab technicians are human and therefore subject to error. This is confounded by the simple fact that the volume of lab tests has increased drastically over the last decade. In addition, dated lab policies and procedures and failure to enforce updated policies and procedures can lead to mistakes by lab techs.
For example, a lab tech is working with 2 samples at the same time and mixes up the results. The lab has a policy that lab techs are not allowed to work with 2 samples at the same time, but fails to enforce the policy. This tends to occur at particularly busy periods, such as when employees are absent from work which in turn causes increased workload for the other lab techs.
Sample Mishandling & Diagnosis Mistakes
Samples may be mishandled at hospitals or medical provider offices, and mishandling can also occur in labs. Mishandling a sample usually involves tainting or otherwise making an error in obtaining a sample. Cross-contamination can occur due to tissue samples detaching from a slide.
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