Undiagnosed Heart Attacks: More Frequent Than You Might Think

Perhaps the reason heart attack misdaignoses are as common as they are is due to the inability of patients communicate what type of pain they are experiencing.

Do Painless Heart Attacks Really Exist?

They do, according to Jeff Milman, a California attorney who has been practicing law for over 25 years and whose practice focuses on medical negligence cases. In a recent interview, Milman told us:

There really are silent MIs (myocardial infarctions – another name for heart attacks) where the patient doesn’t feel any pain. Physicians often overlook these symptoms, yet you’ll find that in 20 percent of all heart attacks, the victim did not experience pain. In many cases, their EKG is normal, but that doesn’t rule out a heart attack. In those cases, doctors will say that they should be held to a lesser standard of care. However, if there are enough symptoms or risk factors, combined with symptoms that an ordinary and reasonably prudent specialist or physician in that gender should have diagnosed or considered a cardiac cause for the patient's problems, then that defense doesn’t hold up.

Victims with Pain

Unlike silent heart attack victims, many others do experience pain. However, diagnosing that pain as an actual heart attack isn’t always done correctly. Milman explained:

You could have a patient who presents with radiating back pain, sweating and nausea where the back pain increases when they exert themselves and the doctor could appropriately say that his diagnosis might be a disc injury in the low back. However, it also might be heart attack. It might be food poisoning, gastritis or some type of stomach flu. The key is that you've got to think of these things and you've got to embark on a plan to rule them out.

The doctors that get in trouble are the ones that automatically misdiagnose, don’t refer the patient, don’t consider the proper diagnosis or choose one of the lesser lethal ones, like atypical chest pain, and don’t properly work up the patient for something that could kill them.

Where Do Undiagnosed Heart Attacks Most Commonly Occur?

Undiagnosed heart attack can happen in a number of settings, according to Milman. “It can happen in an acute setting, it can happen when you go to a doctor’s office one time or repeatedly or in an urgent care setting.” He provided the following examples:

I'm looking at a case right now where a man was seen over a two year period. Two EKG’s were run and both were abnormal, but the physician never made the proper diagnosis. He had chest pain at work and his employer ran an EKG in the afternoon. They advised him to see his own doctor. He and his wife were there by 5:00 p.m. They gave the doctor the abnormal EKG report and he immediately decided it might be a hernia and sent the patient off to be evaluated for that. The patient subsequently died from a cardiac arrest.

In another case, a man was having chest pain at home. He went to the doctor’s office where an EKG and a treadmill test were done. The doctor decided, for whatever reason, that it wasn’t a cardiac issue and cut the patient loose. He came home and died of cardiac arrest.

Milman told us that, unfortunately, there are so many other cases just like these. If you or a loved one has been injured or died due to an undiagnosed heart attack, contact an attorney whose practice focuses on medical negligence cases. Consultations are free, without obligation and are strictly confidential. To contact a qualified attorney to discuss your situation, please click here.