Many people automatically think of heart attacks when the phrase heart disease comes up. As well as heart attack, there are other conditions such as cardiomyopathy and irregular heartbeats that can be another form of this disease. If you get any symptoms you would expect them to be assessed and for an accurate and prompt diagnosis to be made. A failure to diagnose heart disease could lead to long-term problems and even premature death. This makes it all the more important that you can rely on your GP as well as on other medical staff when necessary.
What could happen if a heart condition is not diagnosed?
Any type of heart condition will usually mean you will require treatment of some kind, either urgently or over time. A misdiagnosis can lead to delayed treatment and potentially a poorer prognosis than you may have had initially. In addition you may be ill for a longer period of time than necessary, which can affect your life and the life of your family in a number of ways. This is why people who believe they have evidence of medical negligence seek legal advice to determine whether they might be entitled to compensation.
Failure to diagnose heart attacks
For the majority of the time, the doctors and nurses working in our hospitals and GP practices do an excellent job of diagnosing and treating patients. Making a correct diagnosis when the problem is possibly life-threatening and beginning treatment promptly is undoubtedly the aim of doctors and nurses. The doctors and nurses staffing out hospitals and GP surgeries need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of life-threatening situations and be prepared to skillfully and appropriately treat the problem.
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Hurried, overworked doctors and nurses sometimes don't carefully listen to a patient's complaint; sometimes they simply make a mistake in their assessment of the situation. Sometimes the patient may not provide enough information. The failure to diagnose a heart attack, aneurysm, or other life-threatening problem can be devastating to the patient and their family.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack or myocardial infarction (“MI’) occurs when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle itself is severely reduced or stopped. This happens when one or more of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle is blocked. Deposits of cholesterol and other fat-like substances can build up in the inner lining of these blood vessels and become coated with scar tissue, forming a thickening in the blood vessel wall known as plaque. When plaque and fatty matter narrow the inside of an artery to a point where it cannot supply enough oxygenated blood to the heart. This can cause the death of the heart muscle and can kill or disable someone, depending on how much heart muscle is affected.
What are the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?
Some heart attacks are sudden and without warning but most heart attacks start slowly, with only mild pain or discomfort. Some of the signs that indicate a heart attack is happening are as follows:
- Discomfort in the chest, abdomen, neck, or arm either with or without exertion
- Excessive anxiety
- Pain or discomfort which may begin in the central or left chest and then radiate to the arm, jaw, back or shoulder
- Pain or discomfort is usually not sharp or highly localised
- May be associated with shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, loss of balance, nausea, vomiting or light-headedness
- Symptoms are often confused with indigestion or heartburn
- About 1/3 of all heart attack patients do not have chest pain at all, putting them at a much higher risk of misdiagnosis
- Women are more likely than men to be nauseous and experience pain high in the abdomen or chest
- Symptoms such as blackouts, fainting or breathing difficulty may also be a sign especially in diabetics
- Diabetics do not have the same nerve pain impulses as non-diabetics and can suffer heart muscle damage without any chest pain at all
Has there been a failure to diagnose a heart attack?
In an A&E department or a GP surgery, a heart attack can be misdiagnosed as heartburn, indigestion or some other ailment. In light of the many different ways a heart attack can present itself medical staff need to be vigilant. Every situation needs to be considered against the background of its own facts and circumstances. A good medical assessment and treatment should start with a good but initially brief history and physical examination of the patient. The history should focus on risk factors for heart disease (family history, previous heart conditions, drug interactions, patient alcohol or drug use, smoking, etc.) and the main complaint bringing the patient to the hospital or GP practice.
It is no longer acceptable practice for a doctor or nurse to determine that the patient with chest pain is not having a heart attack and then send the patient home. Even a small amount of damaged heart muscle puts a patient at risk. Guidelines, policies and procedures are changing the way patients with chest pain are evaluated and treated. These advances are intended to prevent misdiagnosis, which may lead to unnecessary procedures, loss of wages, and lost time spent away from loved ones. In some cases, failure to diagnose a heart attack may even lead to death.