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Malpractice Suit Alleges Five Years of Misread Pap Smear Tests

The Post-Gazette reported recently on serious allegations of malpractice against a pathologist for misreading Pap smear slides and missing the presence of cancer in a patient. According to the story, a young woman was shocked when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after giving birth to her son. She had diligently received annual testing in the past which, she assumed, would have identified the cancer earlier. A lawsuit eventually filed in the case claims that for five years the pathologist in charge of decisions about the test reading told the women that everything was fine. The doctor did not identify the presence of any abnormal cells or order more testing to clarify ambiguity.

The woman in the case had several other pathologists review the slides. They found that the tests showed a clear progression of cells from “pre-cancerous” to invasive carcinoma. In fact, the very doctor named in the lawsuit admitted upon further review of the slides afterward that those test should have raised red flags. There is also some confusion about whether the defendant-doctor did in fact indicate suspicious signs which were ignored by obstetricians and gynecologists.

Of course all of this raises the question of whether other woman may have similarly had slides read incorrectly. That fear has led the hospital, along with various private groups, to investigate the entire work performed by the doctor and his lab in the facility. Five hundred sample slides were pulled and are being examined by other pathologists to see if other misreadings can be identified. If so, then all those who relied on negative test results from the lab might need to be reevaluated to ensure they do not have undiagnosed cancer.

One tricky aspect to these cases stems from the complex way that these test results are read. As the story explains, computers are used much more prominently in readings today. Computers often examine the slide results and flag those that show signs of cells which require closer examination. In addition, the slides are often examined by both a cytotechnologist and a pathologist. In other words, there are often several layers of mistakes, and so when problems arise, it requires detailed investigation to determine exactly what went wrong.

I handled a very similar case. In my case, a young woman had annual pap smears which always were read as normal. Then, she was diagnosd with cervical cancer. A review of several years of her pap smear slides showed that the cancer was there but was not reported. Unfortunately, she died. The family later hired me to pursue a wrongful death case. At deposition, the technologist who read the slides admitted that the slides he read as normal actually showed signs of cancer. Subsequently, the case settled.

Missed Cancer Diagnosis

Proving errors resulting in a delayed cancer diagnosis is often complex. As this case demonstrates, sophisticated medical experts are needed to explain what a reasonable medical provider would and should have identified when reading a medical test. It is almost impossible for one not trained in medicine, including the patient themselves, to understanding if a test was misread. For this reason many patients who fall victim to this error do not come forward. This is a mistake, because unless negligent doctors are held accountable, there is a chance that they could make the same error in the future and hurt another patient.

If you or someone you know may have had a diagnosis delayed as a result of signs of test result which were ignored or not read properly, please get in touch with a medical malpractice lawyer to share your story and learn how the law might apply.