Breast Cancer Case Exposes Sickness in the Healthcare System

For over 30 years I have been fighting for victims of catastrophic neglect and misconduct. In the last decade, we have seen a tripling of cases in the medical neglect arena - doctors, nurses and health systems making repeated life-and-death mistakes, leaving babies, children and adults permanently and unnecessarily harmed. Research has shown medical negligence is now the third leading cause of death in the United States. 

A case we recently settled exposed some of that negligence in the healthcare ecosystem that ultimately cost a young mother her life.  With the case now settled – at an Illinois record $12.35 million dollars – my attention now turns to sharing this tragic story to create change in how doctors and patients interact with each other, and to strongly stress that healthcare systems need to recommit themselves to taking the time and money to use proven breast cancer detection methods at the earliest opportunity, because they extend and save lives.

Our client was a young, Polish-speaking mother, a high-risk breast cancer patient with a family history and a sister with breast cancer. The patient had lumps in her left breast and armpit that were ignored for two years. The health system and specialists misread ultrasounds and mammograms, failed to order timely biopsies and failed to communicate with each other, resulting in late stage breast cancer when it was finally diagnosed in 2014. She died in 2016 at the age of 37. 

The defendants in this case were a hospital in the Chicago area and several physicians. While the names in this case must remain confidential, the learnings from this situation can and should be shared to improve outcomes for breast cancer patients – and patients of all kinds – in the future. The areas in need of attention fall into two categories:

Financial pressure/greed

-We see some doctors being penny wise, pound foolish – taking a “wait and see” approach instead of spending money on certain tests. The irony in our case was that the expense saved on a needle biopsy ended up costing millions of dollars in a legal settlement - and the life of a young mother. Needle biopsies are the gold standard to confirm breast cancer, which is a studied disease. Doctors know how to treat it and survival rates are uniquely high, but early detection is key. 

-The financial incentives or pressures for doctors to see as many patients as possible is real. More patients mean more money, but they also mean more demands on a doctor’s time.  In our case, a high-risk breast cancer patient had only 5 minutes with a doctor to discuss cancer risk and detection, which is simply not enough. Whether the demands come from the healthcare system and create doctor fatigue or they are caused by physician greed, something needs to change.

Communication and process

-This case exposed serious communication failures, created in part by an increasingly competitive and volume-driven healthcare market in the Chicago area. Our team saw that doctors did not talk with each other about their shared patient, nor did they listen to the patient or review their own notes. Our client’s tragedy could have been avoided if the OB/GYN, radiologists and surgeon worked as a team, picked up the phone and discussed our client’s numerous red flags.

-Addition to the absence of necessary communication, we found a doctor revising “facts” in their records. We discovered that the day before our client’s medical records were turned over to our legal team, a doctor altered their own notes in the file. Once the doctor was under legal pressure, carefully reviewed the case and saw the missed opportunity to help this patient, they tried to cover their tracks.

With financial pressure and poor communication working against a patient’s best interest, the other tragic shortfall is that patients do not have access to metrics regarding the quality, success or volume of their doctor’s work.  Until meaningful changes are made, patients need to beware and advocate for themselves so they don’t fall through the cracks, relying on their own instincts, asking questions and insisting on answers. It just may save their life.  

This case exposed some extremely serious shortfalls in our healthcare system that need to be addresses systemically, but also should be on the minds of all consumers so they can best navigate their own medical care and not put blind faith in their doctors. Our client’s case was a preventable tragedy, but we hope this family’s loss prevents another from happening in the future. 

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