Treating our Tots: The Pains of Misdiagnosing Children

As a kid I learned fairly quickly that by feigning a tummyache and heading to the nurse’s office, I could easily skip out of elementary school early with time to spare to catch some premium daytime television. But, my grand-master plan to ditch my 4th grade math exams blew up in my face when my hypochondriac mom actually brought me to the pediatrician where I had to continue spewing my web of lies. (I’m fairly certain I ended up with antibiotic prescriptions for sinus infections I completely cooked up in my head.)

Diagnosing kids is tricky. Who is to say whether an illness is serious or just a product highly imaginative child’s mind? Plus, it’s a natural reaction for worried mothers and fathers to run to the ER every time their child has a slight cough.

The Institute of Medicine suggested that nearly all Americans “will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequence.” However, these estimates are rather modest and let’s face it, hospitals aren’t really equipped with the right tools for detecting diagnostic mistakes. Plus it’s hard to put your finger on how many of our nation’s youth has received wrong information about their illness, treated for something they don’t have or had to wait longer for treatment due to initial errors. All we know is, it happens pretty often to kids.

10096749_lPediatricians don’t get sued as much as other types of physicians for malpractice. However, they do get sued for misdiagnosis quite often. In fact, data compiled from The Doctors Company from 2007-2013, 61% of all malpractice suits were directed towards pediatricians. In a 2010 survey, 54% of the 1,300 pediatricians asked, admitted to having diagnostic errors occur 1 or 2 times a month. The margin of error in estimating the true amount of misdiagnosing children is unknown.

No Kidding Around

There’s a lot more to consider when diagnosing children than the normal scope of practice. You have to really assess the stage of development of each particular child. By adulthood, the average person will have a clear concept about what what is normal and abnormal. Unfortunately, kids don’t have that same ability to gauge whether things like being more tired than normal or that if having headaches was normal, for example.

Kids that are chronically suffering from illness also may start to believe that living with that ailment is totally normal. They may not even report a symptom unless it’s a totally new symptom.

Unless it’s a crazy sudden injury or illness, serious problems can run the risk of going unnoticed as a problem or a minor probably could be diagnosed as something more severe. Kids aren’t equipped to help us decipher the severity of an illness. Plus, its difficult to provide the right treatment to children with limited vocal abilities to express what’s happening.

Teenagers are difficult to diagnose as well, but for different reasons. For one, as children grow into adolescence, they may feel the need to withhold information that could end up having some pretty severe effects on their diagnosis. Things like sexual activity, drinking or drug use may not be expressed honestly by teens. This especially is an issue when parents are in the examination room. Asking parents to step out to get trust built between the physician and the teen is a better way to get truthful answers.


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