Dr. Winston Ramsewak, director of diagnostic imaging at Windsor Regional Hospital, says checks and balances in the medical system should prevent any mistakes in diagnoses. ((CBC))

Patients in Windsor, Ont., are being told to ask to see their medical test results after a woman in that city had a breast mistakenly removed even though she did not have cancer.

Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital made public this week what it called a serious mistake in which Leamington resident Laurie Johnston was told she had cancer, then had a mastectomy Nov. 5.

A few weeks later, Johnston learned that her surgeon, Dr. Barbara Heartwell, had misread the pre-surgery pathology report that declared a lump in Johnston's breast was actually benign.

'Certainly the patient's record is their own property, and they have a right to look at that record.' —Dr. Brigitte Ala, Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital

The news shocked many in Windsor, including fellow physicians.

"I know that people make mistakes, but I must admit that it's an unusual thing to happen," said Dr. Winston Ramsewak, director of diagnostic imaging at Windsor Regional Hospital. 

"Obviously, there's always human error somewhere, but with all those checks and balances, errors are very unlikely to happen." Ramsewak said his hospital follows a provincial standard in which at least four people look at test results before a patient is sent for surgery.

Patients begin calling hospital

At Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital, where the error occurred, officials said there are similar checks and balances in place, but wouldn't say which ones failed in Johnston's case.

"I don't think there's ever any guarantee in an art and science like medicine, but we can sure do our best," said Joanne Desjardins, the hospital's patient advocate.


Test results of a patient suspected of having breast cancer should be reviewed at least four times before surgery, said Dr. Ramsewak. ((CBC))

Desjardins said since the surgeon's error became public on Wednesday, she has had several calls from patients asking to see their medical records, something Desjardins said she encourages.

"Contact health records and ask them for their reports," said Desjardins. "We're making it easy for them to get."

Dr. Brigitte Ala, head of mammography at Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital, told CBC mistakes are rare, but they do happen, and the best way for a patient to avoid it happening to them, is to be proactive.

'The patient's record is their own property'

"You have to hear it with your own ears, see it for your own eyes," she said. "Don't assume no news is good news, because things fall through the cracks." Ala said it is perfectly reasonable for patients to ask to see their own medical reports.

"Certainly the patient's record is their own property, and they have a right to look at that record."

Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital has launched an investigation into what led Heartwell, a surgeon with 28 years' experience, to conduct an unnecessary surgery.

The hospital is reviewing all of Heartwell's past mastectomy records, and when she returns from a scheduled vacation, the hospital will monitor her work.

Johnston has said she never wishes to see Heartwell again, but has not launched a lawsuit against the doctor or the hospital.