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Delays in Diagnosis: A Physician's Story of Her Sister's Preventable Death

It is a situation that happens far too often. A family member starts having chest pains. She tells her treating physician who thinks she has heartburn and he recommends taking some antacids. Some time passes and the chest pain persists. Doctors still have not identified the root cause and have instead tried to mask the pain by prescribing various painkillers. Sure, this helps mask the pain, but the underlying issue still exists. Fast-forward two months and this family member is now hospitalized. After a week of doctors in the hospital scratching their heads and pumping narcotics into her system, they finally requested a cardiology consult. The cardiologist comes in, identifies the problem, and finally places the patient on the correct cardiac medications. Unfortunately, it is to late as the damage to the heart is already done.

This is a scene that plays itself out in hospitals across the country everyday. Recently, a physician, Carol E. Gunn, MD, wrote an article detailing her sister's similar medical care and treatment. While many family members can question whether their loved one is getting the proper treatment they need, this family member had a unique advantage that many of us do not - she was a physician. She was able to pick up her sister's voluminous and complicated medical records and actually make sense of them. She was able to determine that her sister did not die of "long-standing cardiac disease" as the hospital had claimed; instead, she died a preventable death due to delays in diagnosis of chest pain.

Not only could this physician make sense of medical records, she was also familiar with how hospitals operate and who she needed to talk to in order to get answers. She met one of her sister's doctors expressing concerns that many of her sister's medical notes looked like they were simply "cut and pasted" and contained outdated medical information. This physician confessed that he had not actually evaluated Anna, but had written an admission note as if he had simply because it was late at night. Another doctor was asked why he did not fully evaluate her chest pain and consult with a cardiologist sooner. He responded that "[he] would then have to refer out all [his] patients."

It is disheartening to think that a loved one could lose their life simply because it was "late at night" or the doctor didn't want to have to request a cardiology consult for "yet another patient," but it happens all the time. This patient had the advantage of having a sister who was a physician to investigate her case, however, most people don't have that luxury. If you or a loved one believes you have been a victim of a delay or misdiagnosis in medical care, please contact us to see if we can be of assistance.

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