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Radiology errors can have disastrous results

Most medical patients never even know the name of the radiologist who interprets the results of x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs or other imaging. They rely on a doctor to pass along the results to them, and determine the best treatment or surgical plan. Most often, it never crosses a patient's mind that a doctor may have been provided with incorrect information. However, what happens if the radiologist gets it wrong?

Consider this hypothetical scenario. A patient goes to see a doctor complaining of back pain. The doctor orders a magnetic resonance imaging scan of the spine, also known as an MRI. Upon completion of the test, the case is assigned to a radiologist whose job it is to interpret the results and provide the doctor with a report and recommendation for treatment. In this case, the radiologist reviews the images and determines that the patient has severely deteriorated lumbar discs at the L4-L5 level, and will likely need a surgical fusion. Part of the duties of the radiologist are to digitally mark the area on the image where a problem exists. These markings are especially important in cases where surgery is needed. After reviewing these results with the patient, the doctor then refers the patient to a surgeon and the back surgery is scheduled.

It is now one month post-surgery and the patient is still experiencing pain with little relief. He returns to the surgeon for a regular follow-up appointment. At this point, the surgeon discusses ongoing issues with the patient, orders new scans and sits down with the patient to review the results. At this point, the surgeon realizes what has happened. The radiologist who interpreted the initial pre-surgery scan results inadvertently marked the wrong area on the image and, as a result, the surgeon has operated on the spine at the wrong level. The patient now needs to undergo a second corrective surgery and his life will likely never again be the same.

This is only one example of how an incorrect radiology report can prove disastrous. There are many other scenarios in which the same or a worse outcome can happen.

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