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Failure to Diagnose Properly May Affect 160,000 Patients Each Year

Diagnostic errors “are completely underrepresented in terms of what we pay attention to,” says the lead author of a new study just published in the medical journal BMJ Quality & Safety. If the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers are right, failure to diagnose patient conditions accurately and in time may be the cause of as many as 160,000 instances of preventable, permanent harm or wrongful patient death in the U.S. every year.

The study was a statistical analysis of medical malpractice claims in a national database that were filed between 1986 and 2010 and which resulted in payouts to the victims. The researchers analyzed some 350,000 such claims representing an inflation-adjusted $38.8 billion in total payments. To their shock, they discovered that diagnostic errors accounted for a full 35 percent of those payouts.

This may be simply because failure to accurately diagnose an illness throws the entire treatment plan off track from the beginning, the study’s lead author points out. “It can be wrong diagnosis, no diagnosis or delayed diagnosis,” he explains. “If you get the diagnosis wrong, the chances of getting the therapy right are greatly reduced.”

In some cases, that failure to diagnose can quickly result in a patient’s death. “If someone has a headache, and you say ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning,’ but the headache is really a brain aneurysm,” he said, “the patient could die before morning.”

Hospital misdiagnoses were the most likely to lead to fatalities, the study found. However, the majority of diagnostic errors occur in ordinary doctors’ offices.

“These are the most common and the most costly of all malpractice claims,” concluded the researcher. “We have to pay attention to this because it is too big of a problem to ignore.”

Patients, often enough, are in no position to know whether their physician has failed to diagnose a potentially disabling or deadly condition. Holding practitioners strictly responsible when they do make diagnostic errors is not enough, but it could be essential if we want to prevent those 160,000 people from suffering preventable injuries or deaths each year.

Source: HealthDay News, “Misdiagnosis’ Leading Cause of U.S. Malpractice Payouts: Study,” April 23, 2013