Study: diagnostic errors may harm or kill 160,000 every year

A new study by researchers at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has come as quite a surprise to many in the medical field. After analyzing more than 350,000 medical malpractice claims that resulted in awards to injured patients, the researchers found that diagnostic errors -- misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis or failure to diagnose patients' conditions at all -- were responsible for approximately 35 percent of those claims.

"We really have to make it a priority to measure and track diagnostic errors on an ongoing basis as we do other mistakes such as infection and wrong-site surgery," says the study's author. "They are completely underrepresented in terms of what we pay attention to."

The CEO of the Medical Risk Institute admitted he was surprised by the findings despite being a medical malpractice defense attorney himself. "Maybe things get off course right at the beginning, but this has not been studied as much as other errors that result in malpractice suits," he agreed.

The research data was from a national data bank and covered the period between 1986 and 2010. After adjusting for inflation, researchers found that misdiagnosis and delay or failure to diagnose was the reason for $13.6 billion in claims over that period. Statistically, the researchers estimate that translates to 160,000 incidents in which a diagnostic error causes a preventable, permanent injury or death every single year in the U.S.

The most common setting for diagnostic errors was outpatient clinics. However, when a missed or wrong diagnosis occurred in a hospital setting, it was more likely to be fatal than in any other setting.

Medical diagnoses are based on years of training, and patients are typically in no position to question them. That does not mean that patients are powerless, the study's author emphasized.

"Ask, 'is there anything else this can be?'" he recommended. "If the doctor says 'no,' ask 'why?' [An] answer such as 'because it's the only thing it could be' is not good enough."

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