One of the great benefits of modern medicine is the ability to detect many types of cancer at an early stage. Although some cancer screenings can be uncomfortable, they often prevent patients from finding out too late that they have a life-threatening illness. But for the screenings to be effective, they must be properly analyzed. A test that reveals the presence of cancer cells doesn’t do a patient any good if a medical professional doesn’t recognize the problem.

A Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, is contending that her doctor at The Washington Hospital failed to detect problems with her Pap smears over a five-year period. Her medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital, its pathology lab and eight of its doctors alleges that the misread tests led to her cervical cancer diagnosis in May 2011.

The woman was diagnosed two months after giving birth. Although her treatment was successful and she was found to be cancer-free in about six months, she might have avoided the cancer and its treatment, not to mention the cost and extreme anxiety that comes with being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, if the tests were read properly. Instead, a pathologist consistently failed to see the abnormal cells that were present in the test results, according to the lawsuit. The pathologist, who has been working for the hospital for almost 50 years, acknowledged as much after reviewing the woman’s slides in light of her cancer diagnosis.

The woman’s attorney, a former physician who now practices law, pointed out that five years’ worth of misread Pap smear slides was not only dangerous to her client, but to the countless other women who had been screened for cancer through Pap smear tests at the hospital. She alerted government agencies and accrediting organizations to the problem, which led to multiple investigations of the hospital’s testing methods and pathologists. Those investigations, which are ongoing, could mean that other patients missed a crucial diagnosis. The hospital said it stands ready to contact patients and their physicians if necessary.

When effective, cancer screening can be a lifesaver. When it isn’t effective because a doctor failed to see the warning signs, patients may have cause to take legal action if the consequence is a disease that could have easily been prevented.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Washington Hospital reviewing hundreds of Pap smears after lawsuit,” Sean D. Hamill, Nov. 16, 2012

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