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Breast Dis. 2001;12:145-58.

The delayed diagnosis of breast cancer: medicolegal implications and risk prevention for surgeons.

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Department of Surgery, Hartford Hospital, Hartford, CT, USA.


The delayed diagnosis of breast cancer is a leading source of error in clinical practice, and an important cause of medical malpractice claims for surgeons and other clinicians. If clinical situations frequently leading to the delayed diagnosis of breast cancer could be predicted, misdiagnosis could be avoided more easily. Therefore, a policy of risk prevention should focus on understanding which group of patients fall into a high-risk profile for diagnostic errors, and why physicians commonly commit errors when evaluating these specific patients. Drawing on multiple sources of medical malpractice information, a profile of high-risk for misdiagnosis was created and analyzed. We have identified a "Triad of Error" for misdiagnosed breast cancer, involving (1) young patients, with (2) self-discovered breast masses, and (3) negative mammograms. The "Triad of Error" accounts for the majority of cases of misdiagnosed breast cancer. An understanding by surgeons and other clinicians of the clinical, biological, and technical basis for the "Triad of Error", and how these factors interact to produce misdiagnoses, should lead to more rapid diagnosis of breast cancer, and fewer medical liability claims. The surgeon plays a central role in preventing the delayed diagnosis of breast cancer by interrupting this cycle of diagnostic error, through the use of tissue sampling techniques that rapidly establish a definitive diagnosis of breast abnormalities.


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