Misdiagnosed w/ depression instead of Alzheimer’s

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Misdiagnosed w/ depression instead of Alzheimer’s

My uncle was diagnosed with depression by his PCP over 2 1/2 years ago and put on anti-depressants. He continued to spiral soon did not know his family, but the PCP continued to say it was depression. My aunt finally took him to another of his doctors he was outraged told her it was Alzheimer’s not depression, by this time he knew nobody, barley had any cognitive skills left was aggressive. He now is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, cannot talk other than saying the same word all day long. The specialists have said there is nothing they can do for him as he is not only progressing quickly but he has the worst form of the disease Aphasia 2. My aunt has lost all of her hair twice due to the stress. She will be 78 in 2 months; he is 72. By the time he was accurately diagnosed he was so far advanced that they could do little to nothing. Can my aunt file a medical malpractice suit against the doctor who misdiagnosed him?

Asked on June 29, 2016 under Malpractice Law, New York

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 years ago | Contributor

Legally, this may have been malpractice--it depends on how difficult it is to tell the symptoms apart at your uncle's then-age, and how reasonable it was for a doctor to miss the signs of Alzheimers in someone who was then 69 or 70. If other doctors or medical professionals have indicated that the first doctor should have caught that it was Alzheimers, then there is a good chance it was malpractice.
(That is, a doctor does not commit malpratice simply by being wrong, since the law acknowledges that medicine is imperfect: we don't know everything, sometimes it's difficult to tell conditions apart, and the best doctors get it wrong sometimes even when they do everything right. Rather, it's malpractice if the doctor was careless or missed something a reasonable doctor should not have missed.)
But even if it was malpractice, it may not be worth suing about. That's because you can only get compensation equivalent to or based on the harm done by the malpractice. Alzheimers is not curable, and it's progress can only be arrested to a limited degree. Say that if the disease had been diagnosed properly 2 1/2 years ago, your uncle would have had an extra year of relatively good function: if that were the case, the amount of money that you'd get for an extra year of a 70+ year-old-man's functionality would most likely not justify the cost (since malpractice suits are very expensive) and stress (on your uncle and aunt) of a lawsuit.
Obviously, if a proper diagnosis would have extended his functioning by 4, 5, or more years, the story may be different: the compensation then for losing those years may well be worth it.
So two good first steps for your aunt are, in speaking to medical professionals, to get a sense for:
1) What was the impact of the wrong disagnosis: that is, had he been diagnosed correctly, what would have been the outcome?
2) How reasonable was it to not spot Alzheimer's the first time?
When she has a sense of those two things, take the information and speak with a malpractice attorney (many provide a free initial consultation to evaluate cases; your aunt can ask about that before making the appointment) to discuss whether it's worth suing.


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