Medical malpractice cases arising out of misread or misreported pathology slides occur with stunning frequency. In point of fact, a patient is at the mercy of the pathologist, a physician who they have never met and know nothing about. Because medical doctors and hospitals need not publicly report mistakes, local physicians who rely on pathology labs do not even know if a particular lab is trustworthy when they forward a patient’s tissue sample for analysis. To make matters worse, a 2010 study reports that nearly 1 in 1000 surgical pathology slides are mislabeled.
The study, titled “Mislabeling Rate of Specimens, Blocks, and Slides in Surgical Pathology,” examined nearly half a million slides in determining that 1.1 per 1,000 slides are mislabeled. Since some labs can generate 200,000 slides per year, there may be errors in over 200 cases in a single lab each year. According to a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic who co-authored the study, with these “enormous numbers … the potential for patient harm is real.”
Under Ohio law a claim for medical negligence may arise if pathology slides are misread or misreported and a patient suffers harm as a result. An example of such a case would be where a skin lesion (mole) is reported as being benign when the correct diagnosis is skin cancer. With skin cancer, particularly malignant melanoma, a delay in diagnosis can allow the cancer to progress from an early, treatable stage to an advanced, terminal stage.
We are handling such a case now where the pathologist, a young but well-trained physician at a nationally recognized dermatopathology consulting center, reported on two patients’ skin lesions at the same time. One patient had a benign condition while the other had malignant melanoma. The doctor mistakenly reported the benign diagnosis twice by putting the wrong identification number on her report, so our client received the wrong diagnosis. It was not until several months later that our client learned of the mistake but by then the disease had spread throughout his body. He died shortly thereafter from complications of metastatic disease.
Other pathology errors occur when a slide is flat-out misread. These are trickier medical malpractice cases because it is difficult for a jury with no medical training to reliably identify pathological features, particularly when the defense’s “hired gun” expert testifies that the slide was an aberration, had some rare features and the defendant’s read was within acceptable norms. Fortunately, there are many medical texts that contain excellent examples of pathology. In Ohio evidence rules, lawyers are permitted to educate jurors using these texts.