How To Tell If You Have A Case For A Failure To Diagnose An Infection

Infections can be deadly. While your body’s immune system fights infections, it can’t always win the battle without medical treatment.  With certain kinds of infections, hours can make the difference between life and death.

The deadly infection may be an abscess the brain or an infection in the heart, but in every case the questions are the same:  First, was there a delay in diagnosing and treating the infection; and second, would an earlier diagnosis of the infection have changed the outcome for the patient.

The first question is answered by reviewing the medical records to find out whether there is documented evidence of an infection.  The evidence might consist of blood results, imaging studies such as a CT scan or MRI or the nurses or progress notes showing deterioration in the mental and physical condition of the patient.  There are usually a number of warning signs of an infection in the medical records.

The blood work can show whether an infection exists and whether the infection is bacterial or viral and a blood culture can show whether harmful bacteria have entered the bloodstream.  A spinal tap can show whether deadly bacteria are in the cerebrospinal fluid and imaging studies like a CT scan or MRI can show whether there are signs of the infection in vital body organs. The goal is to pinpoint exactly when the doctor should have diagnosed the infection.

Once you have that answer, the second question is whether earlier treatment of the infection would have resulted in a better outcome for the patient. In most cases, the treatment for the infection is antibiotics given intravenously in a hospital—high dose antibiotics that are given intravenously can make a big difference in the outcome.  In some cases, such as a couple of hours of IV antibiotics can make all the difference.

You always want to check to make sure the patient was being treated by the appropriate doctor.  Infectious disease doctors are experts at treating infections and with deadly infections, your primary care physician should refer your treatment to an infectious disease doctor. Mistakes are made when primary care physicians and physicians’ assistants try to treat deadly infections on their own and don’t get help from an infectious disease physician.

There’s one final tip: no one knows your loved one more than you.  If you sense something’s just not right about your spouse or child, make sure your doctor knows about it.  The gut instincts are usually right.  So ask for a sit-down meeting with the infectious disease expert to discuss his diagnosis and differential diagnosis for your family member.