Patient Dies After Cancer Symptoms Overlooked For Three Years

A Liverpool family are taking the NHS to court after Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital failed to follow up on signs their father, John Lowe, might have cancer. Despite several scans in which radiologists spotted suspect lesions and recommended further investigation, Mr Lowe was discharged unaware he might have cancer and was never invited for a further test.

Mr Lowe had been admitted to the hospital at the end of 2013 following a heart attack. An X-ray taken during his stay revealed a lesion and the radiologist recommended a CT scan — which produces a more detailed image — to check further. The CT scan took place a few weeks later, when the doctor could not rule out cancer and recommended another scan three months later.

When the second scan took place, the lesion was still present and the radiologist recommended a PET scan. This would have been able to investigate lung function and is particularly useful in cancer investigations. However, the PET scan was never arranged with Mr Lowe, and he was never informed of the previous findings. He was formally discharged from the hospital’s care for his heart attack shortly afterwards.

Three years later, in 2017, Mr Lowe was admitted to Aintree Hospital with severe groin pain. Investigations revealed that the initial lesion had grown and spread to his bones, with the pain caused by a broken femur. Mr Lowe died from cancer three months later.

The hospital admitted the error to Mr Lowe’s family, raising a significant incident to investigate the failure to carry out the follow-up scans. The family, in pursuing the case, believe that although Mr Lowe was in his seventies, he had good overall health and an early diagnosis would have meant the cancer could have been successfully treated, preventing his deterioration and death and sparing his family grief and anguish.

The Lowe family are not alone in having lost loved ones because of a cancer misdiagnosis. The government has strict targets for how long patients should wait for diagnosis and treatment. The current two-week rule, for example, means that patients should have an appointment within two weeks of their GP making a referral for suspected cancer. But this provides no help if the GP does not suspect cancer in the first place.

While the Lowes were preparing their case against Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital last year, Jackie Johnson, in Scotland, was told on three separate occasions that her symptoms were caused by acid reflux. Despite repeated visits to her GP when medication did not help her symptoms, she continued to experience pain and difficulty eating. It was not until she was finally admitted to hospital that she was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus which was, by that time, untreatable.

Research suggests that cancer is frequently missed, at least initially, by GPs. A 2018 report by the All.Can cancer initiative found that 40 per cent of people with cancer were misdiagnosed at least once before being diagnosed with cancer. They also found that, despite the ambitious cancer diagnosis targets, one-in-five have to wait more than six months from their first symptom before they receive the correct diagnosis.

The year before, in 2017, Cancer Research UK published similar statistics. The Cancer Research UK report revealed that 22 per cent of cancer diagnoses resulted from an attendance at accident and emergency. Of these, 70 per cent had been to see their GP at least once about their symptoms. In total this meant that more than one-in-seven people with cancer had it missed until their symptoms were so severe they had to go to A&E.

Whether the delays are because of a wrong diagnosis or administrative error the consequences for the patient can be devastating. A missed diagnosis causes stress and anxiety and can be a matter of life and death. The impact of cancer varies enormously between type of cancer and individuals; it is impossible to know whether a missed diagnosis made a difference to Mr Lowe or Ms Johnson, but it is unlikely to have helped their chances.

Statistically, Mr Lowe’s prognosis might not have been good. For men of all ages the five-year survivability for lung cancer is just under 15 per cent (for men in his age range it is five per cent lower). However, much depends on when the cancer was discovered. When spotted early men’s chances of surviving five years are over 50 per cent. Mr Lowe’s family may have a good case that the incidental finding — the lesion was noticed as a result of his heart attack and apparently before he had any symptoms — meant he would have had a good chance of successful treatment and a longer life as a result.

Concerns have been raised that the coronavirus pandemic risks cancers being missed. The move to remote appointments means GPs may miss symptoms they would have noticed in a normal consultation. Meanwhile, pressures in hospitals caused by staff being redeployed to Covid-19 roles, or being off sick themselves, can result in delays or mistakes.

Some problems could also lie within the nature of the system. GPs, who by definition have to cover the whole range of illness, may attribute symptoms to common illnesses they see frequently, missing the rare occasions these are caused by cancer. Patients with lung cancer, for example, may present with symptoms similar to asthma or pneumonia, while colorectal cancer may be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. There is also significant pressure on diagnostic services, which are expensive to install and operate, which reinforces the natural, and understandable desire of doctors to avoid subjecting patients to unnecessary procedures.

The NHS prides itself on providing safe and effective care but recognises mistakes are made and aims to review and learn from them. However, when it is dealing with millions of patients each week it might never be possible to avoid every single mistake or omission to provide a guarantee that other families won’t experience the grief the Lowes went through.

Claim Compensation For Delays in Diagnosing Cancer

You may be able to able to bring a claim for cancer misdiagnosis if you have been:

  • Given an incorrect cancer diagnosis
  • Told you did not have cancer when you did
  • Given the wrong treatment for your cancer
  • Given a delayed diagnosis

For more information on Devonshires Claims ‘No Win No Fee’ cancer misdiagnosis claims service or to start your free case evaluation, contact us today on 0333 900 8787, email or complete our online form.

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