The Scope of Doctors’ Duty to Inform Patients

Hagen v. Strobel, — P.3d — (Alaska 2015), 2015 WL 4167381

A cardiologist performed pacemaker surgery on a patient and ordered an x-ray to check for complications. A radiologist who reviewed the x-ray noted a potential “nodule” in the patient’s lung and recommended follow-up x-rays. This recommendation was never followed. Nor was it relayed to the patient, who turned out to have an undiagnosed lung cancer from which he died within two years.

The patient’s estate suited the cardiologist and his associate, but failed to call a board-certified cardiologist as a witness to establish that the defendants were obligated to relay the “nodule” information to the patient. The Superior Court held that this failure was fatal to the suit and granted the defendant summary judgment. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed that judgment. Whether a cardiologist should inform her patient about medical facts unrelated to the procedure she took charge of—it held—is a question for medical experts. Only board-certified cardiologists can tell whether their specialty includes the practice of paying attention to and informing patients about incidentally discovered pathologies.

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