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Problems lead to heavy compensation bills

Misdiagnosis and delays in diagnosing ovarian cancer are both contributing to huge compensation pay-outs to women.

Doctors’ oversights and failures to diagnose the disease in women, some of which subsequently died has already led to damage pay outs of more than £500K, research has shown.

It isn’t unusual for patients to experience a several month delay before their GP or a hospital doctor actually diagnoses the cancer. This is according to a case review, which has been undertaken by the MDU (Medical Defence Union), the body which represents doctors who have been accused of negligence.

The MDU found that other women with ovarian cancer were found to have been incorrectly diagnosed with a range of other conditions, such as diverticulitis, anaemia, and even irritable bowel syndrome. And this is because the disease presents a significant diagnostic challenge to specialists and doctors due to it having many very similar symptoms.

The MDU investigated more than 200 complaints submitted against doctors regarding the disease over a nine year period. In more than 80% of these cases a diagnostic delay was alleged. In most of these cases the doctor had been accused of incorrect diagnosis, but failings in cases where there had been a genetic history of the disease and referral delays were also influential said an MDU adviser. In cases where the long term outcome was known, almost 60 patients had died from the disease.

The complaints which the MDU investigated also led more than 70 claims against doctors. Out of the 8 which have since been settled, the payments for damages ranged from less than £10K to more than £500K. 7 out of the 8 cases regarded an ovarian cancer diagnosis delay. Compensation is paid for the patient’s reduced chance of survival, financial loss and additional pain suffered.

Approximately 6,500 women get ovarian cancer in the UK every year and out of those, more than 4,000 die from the disease. A woman’s early diagnosis is vital to their chance of survival for at least 5 years.

The MDU spokesperson has commented that ovarian cancer is particularly hard to identify as it is a chameleon like disease with typical symptoms, such as bloating and stomach pain being very similar to other conditions. In one example, a woman was not diagnosed for many months because she had a history of other gastrointestinal problems; her doctor thought that her symptoms were caused by her pre-existing condition. They went on to point out that even a quite large tumour may result in no symptoms being experienced.

Although the MDU understand that patients and patients’ families may feel that opportunities have been missed when initial incorrect diagnosis’ are made but given the extremely non-specific symptoms, their failure is not necessarily negligent. However, ovarian cancer is such a serious disease that a doctor who considers it even a possibility should refer a patient for further assessment, tests or treatment, especially if the condition has not improved.

The Ovarian Cancer Action charity commented that NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) guidelines which were produced recently were intended to improve the diagnosis. All women above 50 years of age who presents with any of the 4 major symptoms of the disease should be referred automatically for a CA125 blood test, for example.They went on to say that early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is rare with over 30% of cases being diagnosed in Accident and Emergency departments. But we hope that all GPs’ awareness and knowledge of the symptoms will improve in the future. Awareness campaigns are required in order to educate women and doctors.

Sir Mike Richards, the current government’s director of national cancer admitted that ovarian cancer is one of a few types of cancer for which the high late diagnosis rates had prompted the DoH (Department of Health) to undertake action in order to reduce the number of fatalities. The current coalition government has set a target of preventing an extra 5,000 deaths by cancer each year by 2015.

A spokesperson commented that because of the difficulties in diagnosing Ovarian cancer is one reason that we are providing more than £450K over a four year period to encourage and support earlier diagnosis of all cancers. The money will be used to fund a whole range of activities, including nationwide awareness campaigns and improving the accessibility of diagnostic testing to GPs.