Missed Stroke Diagnosis: Legal Aspects
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Missed Stroke Diagnosis

Rachel Olszewski
Rachel Olszewski

Imagine that you go to the emergency room because you are experiencing dizziness and a severe headache. When you finally get to see a doctor, they either diagnose a migraine, an inner ear issue like vertigo, or nothing at all, and they send you home. A few days or a week later, you have a massive stroke that is debilitating for you and your family. Unfortunately, this scenario happens far too often. Doctors fail to diagnose or misdiagnose a stroke in the early stages when if treated correctly, they typically cause far less damage and long-term issues to a patient.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 795,000 people suffer a stroke each year. They are the third leading cause of death in the United States, with someone suffering a stroke every 40 seconds, according to statistics. Strokes are also the leading cause of long-term disability.

Who is at Risk of a Misdiagnosis?

Research shows that tens of thousands of strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIA) are missed or misdiagnosed every year. This misdiagnosis greatly increases patients’ chances of having future strokes, possibly very serious or life-threatening. Worse yet, some groups are more likely to be misdiagnosed when they are having a stroke than others.

  • Women are 33% more likely to have a stroke misdiagnosed than men.
  • The risk of stroke misdiagnosis for African Americans, Asians and Hispanics ranges from 18-30%.
  • Patients between the ages of 18 and 45 are seven times more likely to have a stroke misdiagnosed.

Why Are Strokes Misdiagnosed?

In the simplest terms, when a stroke victim’s symptoms and condition have been negligently misdiagnosed, it is often because the attending medical professionals did not take the time and steps necessary to make a correct diagnosis.

Johns Hopkins says the reasons for misdiagnosing a stroke could range from language and cultural barriers between doctor and patient, to the typical belief that stroke happens only to older people. The study also suggests gender and racial disparities may play a role. Not spending adequate time with patients and their cases leads to such errors as:

  • Failure to obtain medical history
  • Failure to obtain appropriate tests
  • Misreading or misinterpreting test results
  • Failure to distinguish from similar conditions

Determining whether a person is having a stroke or suffering from another illness is usually easily distinguishable with a CT Scan and MRI. However, because those tests are sometimes inconclusive, another diagnosis may be made. The following are some of the common illnesses mistakenly diagnosed when a patient is actually suffering a stroke:


Because migraines are often severe headaches that occur on one side of the head, they can be mistaken for a stroke. Vision issues, another symptom of stroke, often occur with migraines further increasing the chances of misdiagnosis.

Ear Infection

An ear infection can cause balance issues, head pain, and dizziness – all symptoms of stroke as well.


Hypoglycemia occurs when a person’s blood sugar is very low, and it can mimic the symptoms of a stroke. A doctor should be able to rule it out fairly quickly with a blood glucose test, but it also can be misdiagnosed instead of a stroke.

Seizure Disorder

Doctors may misdiagnose a stroke as a seizure-related disorder, as post-seizure symptoms can be similar to a stroke.


Vertigo is caused by an imbalance within the inner ear and can cause extreme dizziness, confusion and even leaning to one side, all of which can be symptoms of stroke.


Someone having a stroke may appear to be intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. A person who is intoxicated may stumble, have trouble speaking, and not be able to walk straight, all of which can also be attributed to a person suffering a stroke.

Contact us

If you experience any signs of a stroke or unexplained symptoms in yourself or a loved one, call 911 immediately. Additionally, if you or a loved one were the victim of a missed diagnosis resulting in medical malpractice or medical negligence, contact us today for a free consultation.

Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. has been handling complex medical malpractice cases for nearly two decades and our success in winning these cases is well-known. You can reach our experienced medical malpractice attorney, Melissa Scartelli, via phone: 570-346-2600.


Missed diagnosis of stroke in the emergency department: a cross-sectional analysis of a large population-based sample

Missed Ischemic Stroke Diagnosis in the Emergency Department by Emergency Medicine and Neurology Services

RSV Prevention

ER Doctors Commonly Miss More Strokes Among Women, Minorities and Younger Patients

Rachel Olszewski
Rachel Olszewski

Rachel D. Olszewski, an attorney at Scartelli Olszewski, P.C., is a dedicated advocate for clients who have suffered unjust harm. Following the legacy of her esteemed family members, Rachel specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice, and criminal defense. She is actively involved in professional associations and serves on the board of the Luzerne County Bar Association Charitable Foundation. Rachel is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania state courts and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
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