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What You Need to Know About Heart Attack Misdiagnosis

Updated August 23, 2020 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for adults in the United States. Even though heart attacks—also called acute myocardial infarctions—are a relatively common ailment, they can be misdiagnosed just like any other disease. When a doctor, physician’s assistant, lab technician, nurse, or other medical professional makes a negligent error in your healthcare, you could have a medical malpractice case.

Making a correct heart attack diagnosis as early as possible can make a huge difference in treatment options and outcomes. Early diagnosis helps prevent complications and could even be the difference between life and death.

Missed Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart attacks occur as a result of obstructed coronary arteries, which reduce or cut off blood entering and leaving the heart. This obstruction leads to a shortage of oxygen and eventually heart muscle damage.

Any potential symptoms of a heart attack, like these, should not be ignored:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, even if it doesn’t radiate. The sensation might be a sharp pain, an ache, or even a squeezing sensation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort anywhere in the upper body, including the shoulder, arm, back, jaw, stomach, head, or the area between the shoulder blades
  • Sudden fatigue, sleepiness, weakness, or low energy
  • Nausea or vomiting, especially when accompanied by other symptoms
  • A burning sensation in the chest or throat
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Feeling sweaty, clammy, or flushed
  • Heavy arms
  • Trouble sleeping, when accompanied by other symptoms
  • A sense of impending doom or intense anxiety

The exact symptoms can vary, depending on the seriousness and location of the blockage; some people might experience sudden or very intense symptoms, but others may experience more mild symptoms.

Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions

Patients who experience chest pains or the other classic heart attack symptoms will often go to an emergency room (ER) for treatment, but patients with less common symptoms could end up in the ER without knowing they could be experiencing cardiac problems. A doctor or medical staff member should be able to anticipate a heart attack by looking at a patient’s history, performing a complete physical exam, and ordering the proper tests promptly.

Sometimes heart attacks aren’t correctly identified, however, and a patient will instead be diagnosed with any of these less serious conditions:

  • Heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Esophagitis
  • Angina
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Anxiety attack
  • Gallstones
  • Musculoskeletal pain

Unfortunately, diagnosis errors can lead to severe consequences for a patient, including delayed treatment or permanent injury.

Why Heart Attack Misdiagnosis Happens

There are a number of reasons why a doctor or hospital could make a negligent mistake that leads to misdiagnosing a heart attack. Some emergency rooms might not have the best resources to make an accurate diagnosis. Hospitals can be hectic environments where a lot of decisions need to be made very quickly. A staff shortage could mean a longer wait time, which for a heart attack patient makes a big difference in the impact the disease has on the rest of their life.

In addition, a doctor could make a mistake, just like any human. Less-experienced doctors might miss symptoms, or they might not follow time-sensitive procedures or order the correct tests in a timely manner. Electrocardiograms, chest x-rays, CT scans, and blood tests are all integral to ruling out a heart attack. Even the misinterpretation of a medical test result—or a mistake in the lab running the tests—could lead to an incorrect diagnosis from a doctor.

Demographic Factors Play a Part

Demographic information can play a large role in the misdiagnosis of heart attack patients as well. Doctors can overlook a patient’s symptoms if they don’t fit the expected profile of a heart attack victim. Younger and healthier patients are more likely to have a missed or delayed heart attack diagnosis because they don’t fit the expected profile.

Elderly patients are at risk of a misdiagnosis because they often present with atypical symptoms and because they could have other chronic illnesses that make it harder for doctors to properly diagnose a heart attack. Women are another group often overlooked in heart attack diagnoses. They often experience different symptoms than men and are more likely to get sent home with anti-anxiety drugs, pain killers, or antidepressants than receive treatment for a heart attack.

Even if it’s uncommon, doctors should rule out the possibility of a heart attack in a patient who has symptoms. If they fail to do so, their negligence could result in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

You deserve the best care medical science can offer. Preventable mistakes from doctors are inexcusable, and such medical negligence could lead to a medical malpractice case.

If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of medical malpractice, you are urged to contact the attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. An experienced Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyer at WKW can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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