Can a Radiologist Be Sued for Negligence?

A radiologist, like any other licensed medical professional, can be held liable in a malpractice lawsuit. Here are the typical legal considerations.

A radiologist is a person trained to read and interpret the results of medical imaging devices from x-rays to MRIs. A radiologist's role is cooperative with that of other physicians. When a treating physician believes that an imaging test would be helpful in diagnosing or treating a patient, the doctor orders the test, and results are sent to a radiologist. The radiologist interprets the results and forwards both the results and the interpretation to the treating physician.

When a mistake is made in diagnosing a patient, the treating physician may be responsible, the radiologist may be responsible, or the two doctors may share liability. This article discusses situations when a patient may be able to sue a radiologist for medical malpractice. We'll identify two common causes of radiology malpractice and briefly describe what a medical malpractice lawsuit against a radiologist might look like.

Misreading an Image

Radiologists are not perfect. When examining test results, they may focus on the potential presence of one type of medical problem versus other conditions. Unfortunately, a radiologist's mistake can cause serious harm to a patient.

Imagine a patient visits a primary care physician with flu symptoms. The doctor believes that the patient is likely suffering from the flu, but orders a chest radiograph to rule out pneumonia. The results are sent to a radiologist who does not notice a minor mass and writes that the radiograph is normal. One year later, it is determined that the minor mass was lung cancer in its early stages. If the mass had been identified, the patient would have had an excellent chance of survival. But because the cancer was able to develop, doctors can no longer save the patient's life.

The radiologist may be liable for medical malpractice. The critical question in the case would be whether other reasonably competent radiologists would have noted the presence of the abnormality in the report. The patient (usually through an attorney) would use the help of a medical expert witness to explain to the jury whether a reasonably competent and skilled radiologist would have identified the abnormality.

If the patient is able to convince a jury that the radiologist failed to meet the standard of acting as a reasonably competent radiologist, the patient would likely win the medical malpractice case.

Communication Failures

Medical malpractice law requires that radiologists and other physicians communicate effectively with each other as well as with patients. But radiologists commonly issue dozens of reports each day. In some situations, the message that a radiologist is trying to convey may not make it all the way to the physician or patient. These breakdowns in communication can lead to medical malpractice cases. In fact, one Applied Radiology study found that communication issues were a factor in as many as 80% of radiology malpractice cases.

A fairly common scenario occurs when a radiologist issues a preliminary report with normal findings and a full report indicating a possible abnormality. In such a situation, the treating physician may never read the full report. Some courts have held that this situation requires a radiologist to proactively ensure that the treating physician or even the patient receives the information.

From a patient's perspective, if a breakdown in communication between a radiologist and a treating physician causes harm, it is generally the case that at least one of the two doctors will be liable. Often, courts conclude that the radiologist and treating physician should share liability. As a result, the two doctors will each have to pay a portion of any award or settlement that the patient is able to win in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

When to See a Lawyer

Since radiology malpractice cases can be extremely complicated and can turn on intricate issues of law or medicine, most patients pursue their cases with the help of an attorney. The attorney often consults one or more expert medical witnesses to help in proving the case.

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