Misdiagnosing Leukemia in Children

Misdiagnosing Leukemia in ChildrenWhen people think about medical malpractice claims, they usually assume the victim is an adult. All medical experts – even pediatricians – are capable of medical malpractice and of inflicting severe harm on children. In these cases, the effects may be even more severe.

One of the most common types of medical malpractice claims involving children is the  misdiagnosis of a condition or failure to diagnose a condition. That misdiagnosis can include failing to recognize what is wrong, diagnosing a child with a different condition, misreading charts or scans, or any other negligent act that delays the treatment of a child’s medical condition. When pediatricians fail to properly diagnose children with leukemia, the children can suffer catastrophic results which affect how they grow and develop, assuming they survive.

What is leukemia?

Per Cedars-Sinai, leukemia is the most common form of childhood cancer. It starts in the bone marrow, causing the marrow to mass produce abnormal blood cells (usually white), and reduce the production of healthy cells. These abnormal cells spread through the blood. Most cases are acute, meaning the cells reproduce and spread quickly.

Like other forms of cancer, leukemia is not just one thing: there are multiple types, and some are incredibly rare. An improper diagnosis can affect the treatment plan for the child, which can have devastating effects.

What are the types of childhood leukemia?

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common form of leukemia found in children. It begins in early forms of white blood cells which are called lymphocytes.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The second most common form of leukemia found in children is acute myeloid leukemia. It begins in the myeloid cells that are responsible for forming white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets.
  • Chronic leukemias. Although chronic leukemia is rare in children, these types of leukemia take longer to reproduce, and are harder to cure. The two types of chronic leukemia are chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
  • Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML). This type of leukemia is unique in that it is neither chronic nor acute. Although it does not grow as fast as AML or as slowly as CML, it begins in myeloid cells and can develop in children as young as two years old.

What are the symptoms of leukemia?

The symptoms of childhood leukemia can change based on many factors, such as whether the cancer is located in the bone marrow, blood, or other tissues and organs. Some common symptoms can include pale skin, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, frequent infections, easy bruising or bleeding, bone or joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes.

What causes leukemia in children?

Medical science does not know the exact causes of childhood leukemia. Per Cedars-Sinai, “There are certain conditions passed on from parents to children (inherited) that increase the risk for childhood leukemia. But, most childhood leukemia is not inherited. Researchers have found changes (mutations) in genes of the bone marrow cells. These changes may occur early in a child’s life or even before birth. But they may occur by chance (sporadic).”

Why is leukemia in children misdiagnosed?

There are several ways that pediatricians can misdiagnose leukemia in children. Because some forms of leukemia are rare in children, pediatricians often mistake the symptoms for typical childhood injuries or illnesses. A child may exhibit symptoms of headaches, nausea, or vomiting, for example, and the pediatrician may misdiagnose the child with stomach flu. It is well-documented that physicians in all practices may ignore signs or symptoms because of their pre-determined assumptions. Per the New Yorker:

Doctors typically begin to diagnose patients the moment they meet them. Even before they conduct an examination, they are interpreting a patient’s appearance: his complexion, the tilt of his head, the movements of his eyes and mouth, the way he sits or stands up, the sound of his breathing. Doctors’ theories about what is wrong continue to evolve as they listen to the patient’s heart, or press on his liver. But research shows that most physicians already have in mind two or three possible diagnoses within minutes of meeting a patient, and that they tend to develop their hunches from very incomplete information. To make diagnoses, most doctors rely on shortcuts and rules of thumb—known in psychology as “heuristics”…. But, just as heuristics can help doctors save lives, they can also lead them to make grave errors.

These assumptions may lead a pediatrician to decline proper testing for their patients.

Not all errors are based on assumptions, of course. Many are based purely on negligence. Pediatricians and GPs who are in a rush to the next appointment may also fail to order the correct tests for diagnosing leukemia, such as blood and bone marrow samples, ultrasounds, x-rays, and biopsies. They may misread a chart, fail to double check a family history, or make another type of diagnostic error.

What are the consequences of a misdiagnosis of childhood leukemia?

Simply put, the later a pediatrician waits to properly diagnose leukemia in a child, the longer the cancer has to metastasize inside the child’s body. The reduction in healthy blood cells can impact a child’s health in numerous ways.

When a child has low levels of red blood cells, it causes conditions such as anemia and shortness of breath. Platelets are blood cells that assist with blood clotting and stop the bleeding of open wounds. The low amounts of platelets in a child’s body are what cause the symptoms of easy bruising or bleeding. Last but not least, white blood cells are responsible for fighting infection and other diseases. When a child has a low level of white blood cells, he or she is prone to more infections.

With certain types of leukemia such as acute lymphocytic leukemia, it is vital that the diagnosis happens immediately so medical professionals can decide the best form of treatment for the child. When pediatricians fail to diagnose leukemia in a child, the cancer can spread, and the child can die. Children who survive may have developmental problems, slowed or stunted growth, or issues with socialization. They also face a risk of the cancer coming back.

A misdiagnosis of childhood leukemia can have significant consequences. The South Carolina medical malpractice attorneys at McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips, LLC want to help. We are dedicated to working with parents whose children have suffered harm because of acts of negligence. Our team can conduct a thorough investigation of what went wrong and build a case for compensation. Please call 803-327-7800 or complete our contact form to schedule an appointment. We have multiple offices throughout South Carolina.

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