Risks and Dangers of Medical Test “False Positives”

A woman goes in to see her doctor for a routine Pap smear. To the woman’s dismay, the test comes back positive for cervical cancer. The doctor recommends an immediate hysterectomy—a devastating recommendation considering the woman, in her prime childbearing years, was trying with her husband to conceive her first child. Preferring life to childbirth, she agrees to the hysterectomy.

Except there was no cancer. After the hysterectomy, the doctors discover the woman’s Pap smear had yielded a “false positive,” identifying an illness that wasn’t really present.

Sadly, this scenario happens more often than you might think. Medical tests of many types frequently yield false positives, raising unnecessary alarms and prompting needless procedures. For breast cancer screenings alone, Science-Based Medicine estimates 18 percent of women who receive 3 annual mammograms will experience a false positive—and after 10 exams, the odds of a false positive go up to nearly 50 percent!

Why Does It Happen?

False positives happen for a variety of reasons, and medical professionals aren’t always at fault. Sometimes a patient fails to follow pre-screening directions, causing confusing results. Other tests are simply prone to inaccuracies. With blood tests, contaminants in the blood can affect the results; the contaminants might be either pre-existent in the patient’s blood or introduced due to mishandling the specimen. And yes, sometimes, medical professionals make mistakes, either in running the tests or misinterpreting the results.

What Are the Dangers?

A false positive itself doesn’t pose actually pose any danger on its own—other than adding undue stress. The danger lies in taking action too hastily on the results. False positives can lead to patients receiving medications they don’t need, sometimes with risky side effects. Just as commonly, they can lead to unnecessary, sometimes permanent procedures, as in the woman who has a needless hysterectomy and loses her ability to bear children as a result.

Reducing the Risk of False Positives

How can you protect yourself from the risks associated with a false positive? Here are some tips:

  • Always ask about the accuracy rates of any test
  • Always follow the pre-testing instructions to the letter
  • Ask the medical professional about their experience in conducting the test, and refuse the test if you’re not satisfied with the answer
  • If you get a questionable positive, get a second test or second opinion before going through with any recommended procedures.

If you or a loved one has suffered loss due to a “false positive” medical test, our Washington D.C. medical malpractice attorneys may be able to help. Give us a call to learn your options.