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Radiologists see most malpractice suits for mammography

by Loren Bonner, DOTmed News Online Editor | February 06, 2013
Most radiologists see suits for malpractice most frequently when failing to diagnose breast cancer, according to a study published this month in the journal Radiology.

Like all physicians, radiologists are faced with medical malpractice lawsuits. The Radiology study analyzed 4793 claims filed against 2680 radiologists in 47 states as reported in the network One-Call Medical, which compiles radiologists' malpractice histories for credentialing purposes.

Most of the missed diagnoses resulted from radiologists failing to detect a lesion on mammography scans and consequently not recommending follow-up testing for the woman. But Dr. Stephen Baker, senior author of the study and chair of the Department of Radiology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School in Newark, told DOTmed News that mammography as a tool is partly to blame as well in many cases. "The technique we used in that decade — where most of the suits occur — is mammography, which is limited when the breasts are dense," he said. "So if you missed it, you're to blame even though the technique has limitations when expectations of certainty are high."

In analyzing the data, Baker and his research team also noticed that errors in diagnosis versus communication were most common for radiologists.

"There may be subsidiary causes but I had access to the primary allegation and it was errors in diagnosis and not the one that is frequently invoked, which is communication errors," he said.

However, Baker pointed out that the data might also reflect a flaw in generalizing all specialties in radiology as one, since it's only in mammography and interventional radiology that the radiologist communicates directly with the patient. For almost all other radiology scans, the referring physician communicates results with the patient.

In addition, Baker said that contrary to popular belief, failure to recommend additional testing did not result in more malpractice lawsuits for radiologists.

"Another reason frequently invoked to avoid a malpractice suit is that if I don't recommend a test I'll be sued. But that's extremely rare," said Baker.

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