Incomplete examinations can lead to misdiagnosis and permanent brain injury of spinal cord injury.
Medical malpractice leading to brain injury or spinal cord injury often occurs when doctors, physician assistants or nurses miss the signs or symptoms of treatable problems with the brain or spinal cord. When the signs and symptoms of neurologic dysfunction are overlooked, doctors may fail to order testing or perform neurologic examinations necessary to diagnose life-threatening problems affecting the brain or spinal cord. The end result is misdiagnosis and delayed treatment leading to permanent neurological deficits.
Neurological examinations include both physical examinations and diagnostic testing like radiology studies of the brain or spinal cord. Doctors are expected to know which neurological exams to perform based on the patient’s symptoms and medical history. Different neurological evaluations doctors or nurses need to perform in order to diagnose time-sensitive conditions affecting the brain or spinal cord include:
- The National Institute of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) for evaluating possible stroke;
- Manual motor strength testing to identify weakness of the limbs;
- Light touch or pin prick testing to identify sensory deficits in the limbs; and,
- Examination with an ophthalmoscope to look inside the eye and find signs of increased intracranial pressure.
Early in the course of a medical condition affecting the brain or spinal cord, abnormal symptoms or neurologic deficits may appear minor. Doctors or nurses may assume slight neurologic deficits are nothing to worry about or will get better without treatment. Neurological exams like those listed above help doctors and nurses see red flags before it’s too late. These tests are designed to catch signs of sometimes subtle problems with cranial or spinal nerves which should prompt further testing or treatment.
The failure to perform timely MRI, CT scan, or other radiology exams can lead to permanent brain or spinal cord injuries.
The only way to definitively diagnose some life or limb threatening diseases of the brain or spinal cord is through radiology exams. Doctors use radiology tests like MRI, CT scan, and CT angiogram to look for problems in the tissues and blood vessels beneath the surface of the skull, neck or back. Tests like these are essential to diagnose brain bleeds (hemorrhage or hematoma), blood clots or aneurysms causing stroke, or an epidural abscess compressing the spinal cord.
Common reasons why doctors and hospitals delay the diagnosis of brain or spinal cord injuries, or misdiagnose these conditions altogether, include:
- The failure to order diagnostic tests like MRI scans or CT scans;
- The failure to promptly perform diagnostic testing, such as on an emergency or STAT basis; and,
- Misinterpreting or miscommunicating abnormal findings on radiology studies.
When illness or injury strikes the brain or spinal cord, there is usually limited time to diagnose and treat the problem before a patient suffers permanent injury. The difference between safe medical treatment and medical malpractice may come down to needless delays in performing critical testing in the radiology department, or delays in bringing a patient to the operating room for an emergency surgery.