Diagnostic errors are both the most common and most costly form of medical malpractice, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. They are also the most preventable form.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed malpractice claim payouts from 1986 through 2010 and found that diagnostic errors accounted for the most serious patient harm, the largest portion of malpractice claims and the highest payouts.
Diagnostic errors include failure to diagnose, wrong diagnosis, and delayed diagnosis. A missed diagnosis causes a patient to continue to experience pain or a condition (such as heart issues or stroke) unnecessarily or allow a cancer to advance, making it less treatable.
Diagnostic errors accounted for 29 percent of all medical malpractice claims during the 25-year period and accounted for more than 35 percent of the payouts, researchers reported in the medical journal BMJ Quality and Safety. Preventable diagnostic errors lead to death or permanent injuries for an estimated 80,000 to 160,000 patients each year, they estimated.
The risk of serious and lasting injury is great when a doctor fails to diagnose properly. A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that about 28% of 583 diagnostic mistakes reported by physicians were life-threatening, had resulted in death, or left the patient with a permanent disability. In other words, in the world of medical mistakes, misdiagnoses carry a huge risk of serious outcomes.
A previous 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that as many as 40,500 patient deaths occur due to diagnostic errors in hospital intensive care units.
Despite this, addressing diagnostic mistakes hasn’t always been a priority for the healthcare industry. The landmark report from the Institute of Medicine, “To Err is Human: Building A Safer Health System To Err is Human only mentioned misdiagnoses twice. Fortunately, it seems the medical industry is beginning to address the problem.
Efforts to Prevent Errors
Doctors may be overconfident in an initial assessment, leading them to ignore test results or miss other warning signs. They also may be judgmental and blame patients, failing to examine all of the circumstances that could play a role in an illness. Some preventive efforts are as simple as retraining doctors to identify and counteract their own biases.
Automation is another solution being put into practice. Computer programs sift through medical records and test results, picking up red flags. These programs are designed to catch cases that may otherwise fall through the cracks.
A system at the Southern California Permanente Medical Group digs through its 3.6 million patient records on a periodic basis to check for errors and missed signals. In one instance, the program identified 7,218 patients who should have received a repeated lab test designed to identify kidney disease after their first tests came back abnormal. Of those identified, 3,465 had the follow-up screening, with 1,768 still showing abnormal results. In the end, 1,624 patients were diagnosed with kidney disease — a diagnosis that would have been missed without the software.
Have You Been Harmed by a Diagnostic Error?
Unfortunately, not all missed diagnoses are detected before a condition causes lasting harm. Patients who suspect that they have been the victim of a missed diagnosis or wrong diagnosis should discuss their concerns with a medical malpractice attorney. A review of your medical records by an independent medical expert working with a malpractice lawyer may be the best way to answer the question of whether a diagnostic error has occurred.