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Are “Difficult” Patients More Likely to be Misdiagnosed?

Nurse consoles a patient in a hospital hallway

Have you ever heard of a patient who was “difficult” to work with or treat? Maybe you have been called “difficult” by your treating physician? While being labeled as difficult in any context can be emotionally hurtful, it can be downright dangerous in a medical setting because there seems to be a noticeable link between “difficult” patients and an increased risk of misdiagnoses.

Frustrations Can Lead to Misdiagnoses

A patient might be called “difficult” if they:

  • Want more diagnostic tests than their physician recommends.
  • Do not follow medical orders or advice.
  • Predetermine the outcome of their treatments due to low expectations.
  • Act rude or curt with their medical professionals.

On the surface, a “difficult” patient might seem innocuous. It is also reasonable to say that some patients can be unfairly labeled “difficult” by a physician who is actually the one who is being difficult. But, no matter why a patient is seen as difficult to work with, the outcome can be the same: increased risk of misdiagnoses that result in physical harm sooner or later.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), John-Hopkins University, and other esteemed medical groups have noted that upwards of 10% of all fatal medical malpractice incidents can be traced back to a misdiagnosis. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the British Medical Journal Quality & Safety reported that “difficult” patients were 42% more likely to receive a misdiagnosis than patients who were “more cooperative,” especially when considering complex medical cases.

The underlying suspicion is that medical professionals are more likely to make a mistake when they are frustrated with their patients, even if that frustration is subconscious. Rather than viewing the case as objectively as possible, a frustrated or impatient medical professional might overlook small details, rush their decisions, and act with a bias against their patient’s best interests. Although it is upsetting to think that a doctor might reach a misdiagnosis or a late diagnosis because they were feeling frustrated with the patient they were supposed to help, it is, ultimately, a very human response. Most people will admit they have felt frustrated at work due to a client or customer, and medical professionals are not immune to the influences of their emotions.

How to Stop Frustration-Based Misdiagnoses

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has a relatively simple fix to help stem the number of frustration-related misdiagnoses: make medical professionals work on teams. When there is more than one doctor or physician reviewing a patient’s case, the likelihood that biases and emotions are swaying the diagnosis will drop for every additional person working on that case. Because complex medical conditions should usually be reviewed by a medical team, this solution is not calling for much more than the normal. This change could help protect countless “difficult” or concerned patients from the dangerous consequences of misdiagnoses.

For help with medical malpractice and misdiagnosis cases in New York and New Jersey, contact the attorneys of Simonson Goodman Platzer PC. Let us know if you were unfairly labeled as “difficult” by your treating physician, too.