Misdiagnosis or Brushing Aside Signs of Skin Cancer: The Importance of Seeing a Specialist

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

In 2006, a jury in Virginia Beach awarded a family $1.5 million in the death of a family member. According to The Legal Examiner, doctors misdiagnosed melanoma as simply an infection, causing the melanoma to spread. The patient originally went to the doctor for a raw spot on a finger and was treated for an infection. When the infection did not clear up, a second biopsy was done and melanoma was detected. By this time the melanoma had spread and the patient died.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. [1] Even so, General Practitioners (GP) and family doctors are not always aware of what to look for or when additional testing is needed. A study completed by the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery found that 90 percent of the dermatologic surgeons who participated stated they had at least one patient, within the preceding year, who had been misdiagnosed or overlooked by a non-dermatologist.

Doctor Errors

There are a number of reasons a doctor may miss or delay diagnosing skin cancer, or any number of other medical conditions:

  • The doctor didn't think about the condition, diagnosing based on patient history and visible signs without looking for alternative diagnosis

  • Failure to arrange diagnostic tests or refer the patient to a specialist

  • Failure to create a follow-up care plan

  • Not completing a full medical history and physical exam

  • Incorrectly interpreting the results of diagnostic tests

Seeing a dermatologist, rather than a GP or family doctor can help. Dr. Andrew Kaufman, in an article on NBCNews, states, "Anyone, even a doctor, can potentially miss a skin cancer. But studies show dermatologists are best at identifying them." [2]

Patient Responsibilities

Sometimes a delay in diagnosis is caused by the patient. Not following up on treatment or failing to set an appointment with a specialist can cause skin cancer to go undiagnosed for longer than necessary. In addition, some patients may delay going to the doctor because they don't know the warning signs or because if a lesion is not causing pain or interfering with their daily life, they don't see a reason to take time out of their day to go to the doctor.

Other ways you can be diligent in identifying and receiving treatment for skin cancer:

  • Insist on a referral to a dermatologist. When you have a skin lesion and are concerned it may be pre-cancerous or cancerous, insist on seeing a dermatologist. Many insurance companies require you to first see your family doctor but if you feel you need additional treatment or a second opinion, insist on getting a referral and schedule an appointment with a board certified dermatologist.

  • Annual skin exams are important, no matter what your skin tone. Taking an hour, once a year, can potentially save your life - skin cancer is almost always curable with early detection and treatment.

  • It is also recommended that everyone do self-exams on a monthly basis. Know your skin and be aware of any changes - size, color or shape - of any moles or skin lesions. Changes can indicate a problem and should be seen by a specialist immediately. Through self-exams, patients find about one-third of all skin cancers. [2]

If you see a doctor and follow-up treatment is recommended, follow through. Make the appointment with the specialist, go for laboratory tests and see the doctor for scheduled follow-up exams. Not following through on treatment can lead to skin cancer spreading.


"Family Awarded $1.5 million for Missed Melanoma," 2006, Aug. 18, Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton, The Legal Examiner

"Missed Melanoma," 2012, April, MPS, Sessional GP, Issue 5

[2] "Skin Cancer Can Sneak up on the Most Savvy," 2008, May 12, Louise Palmer, NBCNews.com

[1] "Skin Cancer Facts," Updated 2012, Sept 10, Staff Writer, Skin Cancer Foundation

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.