Do Doctors Understand Immunotherapy Side Effects?

Advances in cancer treatment have greatly improved cancer survival rates in recent years, the National Cancer Institute notes. However, some new forms of cancer treatment such as immunotherapy can cause patients to suffer harmful and potentially life-threatening side effects. A problem arises when doctors fail to see the connection between the immunotherapy treatment and a patient’s symptoms. As a result of a missed or delayed diagnosis, the patient may not receive timely and proper treatment, and the patient’s condition may worsen.

The Washington Post recently reported on a specific form of immunotherapy that involves the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs essentially unleash the body’s immune system and allow it to attack cancer cells in a patient’s body. However, doctors may mistake the side effects from immune checkpoint inhibitors for other conditions.

For instance, the newspaper reports about one patient who underwent immunotherapy treatment for advanced melanoma. She developed a “horrific headache that she attributed to work stress.” As it turned out, she suffered from autoimmune meningitis.

What Are Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors?

To get a better understanding of the side effects that immune checkpoint inhibitors may produce, you should know how they work. With this understanding, you can also see why some doctors may mistake those side effects for other conditions.

As the American Cancer Society (ACS) describes, the immune system fights infections and disease in the body. The immune system does this by recognizing “foreign” substances in the body such as cancer cells and attacking them.

Immunotherapy drugs help the immune system to carry out this function. For instance, some drugs help the immune system to recognize cancer cells, which often are highly similar to normal, healthy cells in the body. Other drugs give the body additional proteins to attack cancer cells.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors target “checkpoints” on immune system cells. Those checkpoints generally keep the cells from attacking other cells. By inhibiting the functioning of these checkpoints, the drugs boost the immune system’s response and free it to attack cancer cells.

Today, according to the ACS, many oncologists use immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat patients who suffer from cancers that include:

  • Melanoma
  • Non-small cell lung cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As the New York Times reports, patients who have responded well to this form of immunotherapy are elated. For many patients, the use of immune checkpoint inhibitors may have served as a last hope after they had tried other forms of treatment like chemotherapy or radiotherapy. At the same time, immune checkpoint inhibitors may lead to diverse side effects which could carry serious consequences.

Is Misdiagnosis of Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Side Effects Common?

The Washington Post reports that anywhere from 15 to 70 percent of patients who undergo immunotherapy treatment suffer from side effects that range from minor rashes to serious conditions such as heart muscle inflammation. However, the misdiagnosis of side effects caused by immune checkpoint inhibitors could be a growing problem.

As the newspaper explains, “Many doctors are not up to speed on how to spot and handle an immune system revved up by immunotherapy.” So, doctors may mistake a side effect for another condition and provide an ineffective course of treatment. The delayed diagnosis of the side effect could lead to unnecessary treatment and the worsening of a patient’s condition.

For example, the newspaper spoke with one patient who underwent immunotherapy for the treatment of advanced lung cancer. She developed vision problems. Her ophthalmologist diagnosed the issue as a torn retina that required laser surgery, while her oncologist diagnosed it as uveitis related to the immunotherapy treatment.

The patient underwent the laser surgery, but her vision problems continued. She finally got the treatment she needed – steroid eye drops. However, due to the delay, she continued to suffer vision problems two years later.

Some other examples are:

  • Immunotherapy-related rashes diagnosed as skin infections. Instead of being prescribing a steroid to the patient, a doctor may instead prescribe an antibiotic that fails to address the rash.
  • Diarrhea caused by the immune system attacking the colon. A doctor may mistake the diarrhea as being a symptom of the flu or a product of food poisoning. The condition may need more aggressive treatment.

The newspaper indicates that the medical community needs to do more to educate doctors about immunotherapy drug-related side effects. Also, doctors need to know whether the patient they see for a condition has undergone immunotherapy.

Could Misdiagnosis of Immunotherapy Side Effects Be Medical Malpractice?

A misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of a medical condition can lead to devastating harm. As discussed above, the consequences can be painful, costly and even life-threatening when the misdiagnosis involves the side effect of an immune checkpoint inhibitor or other immunotherapy drug.

In some instances, a doctor can avoid a misdiagnosis if the doctor takes steps such as thoroughly checking the patient’s medical history or communicating more effectively with the patient. Additionally, a doctor may fail to make a timely and correct diagnosis because the doctor simply lacks knowledge and training.

Doctors must meet a recognized standard of care when they diagnose and treat patients. If a doctor fails to live up to that standard, and a patient suffers harm as a result, the patient has the right to seek compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit.

If you believe that you or a loved one has suffered harm due to a doctor’s failure to detect an immunotherapy drug-related side effect, you should seek help from an experienced medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible in order to protect your legal rights. The attorney can conduct a thorough investigation, provide an honest assessment of your case and help you to pursue all legal options that are available to you.

Get Help from an Experienced Indianapolis Medical Malpractice Attorney

Even if you undergo an innovative form of treatment, you have a right to expect the highest level of care at all times. At the Law Office of Kelley J. Johnson, we will protect your rights and provide the legal guidance and representation that you need if you have been harmed by medical malpractice. We serve clients in Indianapolis and throughout Indiana. To learn more, call or reach us online today for a free and confidential consultation.

Injured patients and their families need solid legal guidance after a serious medical error. At the Law Office of Kelley J. Johnson, we listen attentively to our clients’ questions and concerns. Our goal is to help them move forward after devastating, even fatal medical errors.