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Why do doctors fail to diagnose cancer?

For doctors in Boston, telling a patient that he or she has cancer is one of the more difficult things they have to do. Moreover, even when a person is told that they do not have this disease, there are instances in which a doctor makes a crucial mistake.

The failure to diagnose cancer not only puts the patient in a position where they were told one thing and the truth wound up being something different, but it can also lead to delayed treatment and the possibility that they lost valuable time in dealing with the disease. That's why many people who are fearful of having the disease often wonder how prevalent the failure to diagnose cancer is.

A nationwide study by a Boston-based group of physicians and researchers showed the frequency with which doctors believe cancer is misdiagnosed. While more than 60 percent of medical professionals polled believed that the percentage of mistakes was between zero and 10, another study showed that the number actually reached 28 percent.

Doctors gave a wide variety of reasons for the mistakes. Nearly 40 percent believed that a lapse of information from one medical system to the other was to blame. Twenty-two percent thought that "inadequate pathology diagnostic resources" were at fault. Over 20 percent felt a failure to receive adequate genetic information caused the misdiagnosis.

Thirty-six percent of doctors believe that improved tools will help solve the issue. Resources for tumor genetic testing are referenced by nearly 18 percent, while 15 percent cited improved radiology tools. Another 29 percent believe that lawmakers could help the situation with incentives for research into the problem.

As we have discussed in a recent blog post, the issue of undiagnosed cancer is not limited to low-income people or those without health insurance. Even those who are wealthy, famous and presumably have access to "superior" doctors can also face delayed treatment due to misdiagnosed cancer.

According to the nationwide study, doctors, for the most part, do not see the members of their own profession as uncaring or incompetent. Nevertheless, the victim of a misdiagnosis will still be facing a potentially fatal disease after a doctor fails to diagnose cancer, and it may be too late.

Source: National Coalition on Heath Care, "Exploring Diagnostic Accuracy In Cancer: A Nationwide Survey of 400 Leading Cancer Specialists," accessed on Aug. 5, 2014

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