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Ethical challenges in child abuse: what is the harm of a misdiagnosis?

Authors
  • Brown, Stephen D.1
  • 1 Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 300 Longwood Ave., Boston, MA, 02115, USA , Boston (United States)
Type
Published Article
Journal
Pediatric Radiology
Publisher
Springer-Verlag
Publication Date
May 17, 2021
Volume
51
Issue
6
Pages
1070–1075
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1007/s00247-020-04845-4
Source
Springer Nature
Keywords
License
Yellow

Abstract

In this article the author examines ethical tensions inherent to balancing harms of false-negative and false-positive child abuse diagnoses, and he describes how such tensions manifest in courtroom proceedings. Child abuse physicians, including pediatric radiologists, shoulder heavy responsibilities weighing the potential consequences of not diagnosing child abuse when it could have been diagnosed (false negatives) against the consequences of making the diagnosis when it has not occurred (false positives). These physicians, who practice under ethical obligations to serve children’s best interests and protect them from harm, make daily practice decisions knowing that, on balance, abuse is substantially more underdiagnosed than over diagnosed. Legal justice advocates, however, emphasize that clinical decision-making around abuse is not disassociated from endemic injustices that unduly incriminate individuals from socioeconomically underprivileged populations. Some defense advocates charge that child abuse physicians are insufficiently sensitive to harms of erroneous diagnoses, and they have characterized these clinicians as frankly biased. To support their claims in court, defense advocates have enlisted likeminded physician witnesses whose credentials as experts flout professional standards and who provide consistently flawed testimony based upon deficiently peer-reviewed literature. This article concludes that, to help mitigate these unhealthy circumstances, child abuse physicians might build trust with criminal defense advocates by instituting measures to alleviate perceptions of biases and by more explicitly acknowledging the potential harms of erroneous diagnoses. Professional societies representing these physicians, such as the Society for Pediatric Radiology, could take concurrent measures to help better prepare their constituent clinicians for expert testimony and make them more available to testify.

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