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Medical Misdiagnoses: Impacts Throughout Communities


Imagine this:

You went to the doctor to inquire about a solid, painless, enlarged lymph node that you’ve had on your neck for the past two weeks. You are concerned that this symptom could be very serious. You may also be wondering if you are currently at risk of developing a lifelong illness or disease. When looking for information on Google, you may feel a bit more anxious about this condition. You want to act quickly. You gain the nerve to tell your doctor what has been going on…


...but, lightheartedly, she tells you that you likely have a bacterial infection, and prescribes you an antibiotic. Although your medical history has shown that you have had many infections in the past, you leave the hospital more confused than when you entered. You have a strong feeling that this is not a bacterial infection, that you are fighting something else. However, after a small moment of reflection, you may feel obligated to take the antibiotics for about a week, to “give it a chance”, to “see how it goes”.


After a week of taking antibiotics, you examine the lymph node on your neck. The enlargement is still there, and it has grown even bigger. More prominent. More intimidating. Your fears have rapidly increased. And you go to see another doctor, where your worst fears are realized.


You have been a victim of misdiagnosis. You have Stage 4 lymphatic cancer. And you are fighting for your life.


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For many individuals and families, this is a heartbreaking reality. Nobody wants to hear that their medical problems have become severe during the time of misdiagnosis. Nobody wants to suffer and question whether they should've said or done something differently. However, the pain usually extends beyond an individual and their family. In fact, misdiagnoses could leave a substantial negative impact on the communities around ones affected but are less commonly discussed. When these occurrences appear within the communities, the distrust, fear, and frustration against the medical care system continue to rise.


Communities have the right to be frustrated about these misdiagnoses, especially since this issue has been prevalent throughout centuries. In a 1996 study performed by Kirch and Schafii, the number of misdiagnoses were calculated for forty consecutive years. In this study, it was hoped that with improvements to diagnostic procedures and technological advances, the percentage of misdiagnoses would decrease. These diagnostic procedures include utilizing an ultrasound, computerized tomography, and radionuclide scans - all of which were brand new technologies at the time of conduction. Unfortunately, that was not the resulting case. In fact, when analyzing the number of misdiagnoses per era, it was revealed that they each shared a 10% misdiagnosis rate, which demonstrated that any advancements to care were unable to alter this crisis.


Even at the start of 2020, the percentage of misdiagnoses that occur has been relatively the same, with about 1 out of every 10 patients being misdiagnosed per year. Although this percentage may not seem like much, if we assume that about 100 million people visit their doctor yearly for a health concern, this would theoretically equate to about 10 million misdiagnosed individuals. In addition to this, this percentage is very concerning because the majority of these misdiagnoses revolve around a ‘Big Three’ disease, which consists of cancers, infections, and vascular events. ‘Big Three’ diseases, if not treated right away, typically lead to permanent disability or death.


In order to combat this ongoing problem, it is clear that community engagement regarding this problem needs to increase dramatically. By not voicing concern about this issue and allowing these patients and families to suffer silently, community members are doing a large disservice to the health and safety of their cities and establishments. Admittedly, this is a tricky issue, as many of these misdiagnoses were not made under ill or improper intent. Nonetheless, exercises on community organizing and community building prove to be beneficial, providing the community the empowerment and voice to speak out about these concerns. Many communities also need to understand that even if misdiagnosis is considered to be ‘commonplace’ in practice, it is still a form of potential negligence or malpractice, and, therefore, each case deserves its due justice.


Thank you so much for reading!

Ashlyn Southerland


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Kirch, W., & Schafii, C. (1996). Misdiagnosis at a university hospital in 4 medical eras. Medicine (Baltimore), 75(1), 25-40. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005792-199601000-00004.


Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine. (2020, May 14). One in 10 patients with a ‘Big Three’ disease misdiagnosed. https://improvediagnosis.org/news_posts/one-in-10-patients-with-a-big-three-disease-misdiagnosed/



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