Risks and Dangers of Medical Test “False Negatives”

We’ve talked about false positives on medical tests and how they can prompt patients to receive treatments or procedures they don’t really need. However, perhaps even more dangerous is the “false negative”—the test that says you don’t have a disease or condition you actually have. We most often hear about false negatives in the context of home pregnancy tests, which are more prone to giving false negatives than false positives. However, when it comes to screening for more serious conditions like HIV or cancer, a false negative can have dire repercussions.

Why Does It Happen?

False negatives happen for many of the same reasons that false positives do: The test may be corrupted by a foreign substance, conducted under less-than-optimal circumstances or not according to directions, etc. Sometimes they occur due to human error on the part of the healthcare professional doing the screening.

Specific Dangers of False Negatives

The most obvious risk in receiving a false negative is a false sense of security that causes doctor and patient to believe the patient doesn’t need treatment. More specifically, this deception can translate to:

  • Failing to diagnose and begin treatment early enough. A common example is cancer, whose cure rate often depends on how early the disease is detected. A false negative can lead to further progression of the disease, sometimes beyond the point of survival.
  • Failing to protect others from the risk. For example, a false negative in HIV testing could lead to the patient infecting others with the disease.

Reducing the Risk of False Negatives

No medical test is completely fool-proof, and false negatives may occur even if every effort is made to conduct the test correctly. That said, here are some ways to guard against the dangers in the event of a false negative:

  • Ask about the overall accuracy of the test. How trustworthy are the results?
  • Be informed about how the test is conducted, and make sure your healthcare professional does it exactly that way. (Doubt the results if you notice an error.)
  • Ask the medical professional about their experience with the test. Ask for someone else to do the test if you’re not confident in that person’s abilities.
  • When in doubt, take the test again.

If a false negative due to negligence has caused you or a loved one to delay much-needed treatment, our Washington D.C. medical malpractice attorneys can help. Give us a call to learn your options.