Valenzuela Law Firm, PA | Trial Attorney
Attorney Henry E. Valenzuela

Failing to diagnose a pulmonary embolism could be fatal

On Behalf of | Mar 10, 2024 | Misdiagnosis

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a life-threatening medical condition that requires immediate attention. However, it’s often misdiagnosed, leading to fatal consequences.

Why is PE so hard to diagnose, and what can be done to improve patient outcomes?

Consequences of a misdiagnosis

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lungs that gets stuck in the artery and blocks blood flow. Despite its severity, diagnosing PE can be challenging, especially if the patient has underlying health conditions. The symptoms of a PE can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing (sometimes with blood)
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness

These PE symptoms are very similar to those of other health conditions, such as respiratory infections, heart failure and acute coronary syndrome, which contributes to the difficulty of diagnosis.

Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of PE can lead to devastating outcomes. It can cause scarring in the lungs or pulmonary hypertension, a condition where the blood pressure in the lungs and the right side of the heart is too high.

Furthermore, one-third of patients with undiagnosed or untreated PE end up dying.

Healthcare providers must take all the necessary steps to diagnose PE, especially in patients with high-risk factors such as:

  • History of blood clots
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Extended periods of inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Overweight

Since no single test can provide a definitive diagnosis of PE, healthcare providers must use a combination of tests, including:

  • Chest x-rays
  • Blood 
  • CT scans
  • Pulmonary angiography
  • Ultrasound of the legs

If treated promptly, the mortality rate of a patient with PE drops to 8%. This is why a proper diagnosis is vital to the patient’s survival. A failure to diagnose and treat PE may be due to negligence and could be grounds for a medical malpractice claim.

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