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Cancer screening guidelines can potentially play role in medical malpractice litigation

In our last post, we spoke about the American Cancer Society’s updated recommendations for breast cancer screening, particularly with respect to mammograms. As we noted, medical guidelines seem are frequently updated, and it is important for physicians to keep up with these updates and the research behind them to understand how to best serve their patients. Failure to do so can have serious consequences.

It is important for patients to realize that cancer screening guidelines are not universal, and that different organizations offer a range of different guidelines based on research. According to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, the most reliable evidence suggests that woman at average risk should begin receiving mammograms at the age of 50, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends beginning mammogram screenings at the age of 40. Then there is the new American Cancer Society guideline which recommends beginning at the age of 45. 

Mistakes can certainly be made in following such guidelines. For one thing, a physician might make a mistake as to the patient’s true risk level. If a woman’s physician mischaracterizes her to be at average risk when she is actually at high risk, critical screening might be delayed unnecessarily.

Another issue to consider is that, although it is not very likely that a physician properly and prudently following established medical guidelines for cancer screening would fail to order screening and detect cancer in time to stop it from reaching advanced stages, it is possible. Whether a physician could rely on an alternative screening guideline as a defense in medical malpractice litigation is an important question, and one that usually has to be resolved at trial by considering the testimony of expert witnesses.

Obviously, navigating medical malpractice effectively with respect to the proper standard of care is an important matter, and patients who have been harmed by a physician in the cancer screening process, or lack thereof, should always work with an experienced attorney. 

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