Can doctors misdiagnose a heart attack?

If medical professionals misdiagnose a heart attack, it can have serious consequences for the patient. Therefore, it is essential to get a quick and accurate diagnosis so appropriate treatment is given.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack is a form of acute coronary syndrome where the supply of blood to the heart through the coronary arteries is suddenly blocked or significantly reduced. A lack of blood to the heart may damage the heart muscle and can be life threatening. This is called a myocardial infarction. There are three main types, each of which are a serious medical emergency.

  1. ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI)
    Where the coronary artery is completely blocked and a large portion of the heart muscle stops receiving blood.
  2. Non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI)
    Where there is a partial blockage, which does not show any change on an ECG.
  3. Coronary spasm/unstable angina
    The symptoms can be the same as a STEMI but may be mistaken for muscle pain or indigestion. This is when one of the arteries tightens to either stop or significantly reduce blood flow. Blood tests and imaging identify this type of heart attack.
Elderly patient clutching chest due to suspected heart attack


Blockages may arise due to plaque, such as fatty deposits, calcium and cholesterol, building up in the arteries of the heart resulting in narrowing of the arteries over time.

While many do survive, a heart attack can kill or disable, depending on how bad it is. In some cases, the blood supply may only be partly blocked or reduced. While less serious, it is still a medical emergency. Without treatment, it can cause serious heart damage.

Symptoms of a heart attack

Symptoms vary from patient to patient but can include:

  • Chest pain – a feeling of pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across the chest. The pain is often severe. However, in some cases the pain can feel like indigestion.
  • Pain in the abdomen, neck, jaw, back, or arm, often as if it is spreading out from the chest.
  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, sick (nauseous) or being sick (vomiting).
  • Sweating, shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing.
  • Feeling very anxious (similar to a panic attack).

Symptoms in women can be different and are more likely to include shortness of breath, feeling or being sick and back or jaw pain.

Diagnosing a heart attack

If a heart attack is suspected, an ambulance should be called. You are likely to be admitted to hospital.

Hospital staff will usually carry out an ECG (electrocardiogram), blood tests and a chest X-ray. Depending on the outcome, you may need an echocardiogram (heart scan) to assess the damage or a coronary angiography to find and assess any blockages.

Middle-aged woman experiencing back pain, which is a common reason for a doctor to misdiagnose a heart attack


Treatment of a heart attack

Treatment will depend on the severity of the heart attack and how long you’ve had symptoms.

A medical procedure may be necessary to widen the coronary artery. More complex and specialist procedures may be needed in more serious cases, including a heart bypass.

You may also be given blood-thinning medicines to prevent further clots, such as low-dose aspirin, which you may need to continue taking for some time.

What happens if my symptoms are mistaken?

A heart attack misdiagnosis or delay to the diagnosis and treatment, can lead to serious injury or even death. This can happen as a result of incorrect assessment by paramedics or hospital staff.

Reasons for misdiagnosis can include confusing the chest pain with indigestion or heartburn, an absence of significant chest pain or a lack of ECG abnormality. For example, women are more likely to experience nausea and pain high in the abdomen or chest during a heart attack. However, these symptoms could be put down to something else like stress, anxiety, IBS or infection.

Risk of misdiagnosis can be exacerbated if a full history isn’t taken from the patient to find out, for example, whether the patient:

  • is a smoker
  • is diabetic
  • has high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • is not very active
  • has a family or personal history of heart attacks.

It is therefore important that paramedics and hospital staff take a detailed history and full observations.

A chest X-ray taken as part of a procedure to check for a heart attack


What do I do if my heart attack was misdiagnosed?

If you think your heart attack was misdiagnosed, it may be a result of medical negligence. This will depend on the circumstances, and whether the medical care you received was below a reasonable standard.

If it was medical negligence, you may be able to claim for damages and compensation.

Consider getting advice from a clinical negligence solicitor. They can evaluate what happened, advise whether you have a claim, and how much you should claim. They will also be able to guide you through the claims process.

Professional legal advice for clinical negligence cases

At Devonshires Claims, our team of experienced clinical negligence solicitors have the expertise and knowledge required to help with cases where a heart attack has been misdiagnosed.

In addition to advising you on your circumstances, we can also represent you in the legal process, on a ‘no win no fee’ basis.

To begin your free case evaluation, get in touch with the team at Devonshires Claims today. Call 0333 016 5180, email, or use our online contact form.

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If you're considering legal action, then lets talk. We can discuss your circumstances and provide you with a free case evaluation to help you determine whether a claim is the best course of action.

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