Study: Late, Wrong Diagnosis Affects Majority of Americans


A new study by a panel of independent medical experts offers troubling news about missed, delayed and wrong diagnoses in this country: Most Americans will get one at least one time in their lives. Sometimes, the outcome is devastating, resulting in the loss of precious time necessary to treat aggressive conditions.

Further, it turns this type of health care mistake is much more common than other types of medical errors, such as medication slip-ups or surgical blunders. Even so, this is an area of study that, until the Institute of Medicine’s most recent report, has been given far less attention than other issues of patient safety.

That’s largely because most research has focused on issues pertaining to health care that happens in hospitals. So things like hospital-acquired infections, mistakes during surgery or errors doling out medication have been high on the priority list of researchers. Diagnosis problems, meanwhile, often happen at outpatient centers, doctors’ offices and surgical centers. There are of course issues in hospital emergency rooms and in other hospital settings, but the new research indicates this is system-wide problem that is going to require a multi-pronged approach to address.

Researchers at the Institute of Medicine, which is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, say it’s impossible to know exactly how many diagnostic transgression occur, but by one estimate, it happens to at least 12 million adults every year. That’s 5 percent of all adults who seek or receive outpatient care. Further compounding the issue is the fact that health care delivery systems are becoming increasingly complex, which the study authors say will likely result in even more diagnostic errors in the coming years.

That number is probably a low-ball estimate, due the fact most diagnostic errors are only revealed after autopsies or as a result of medical malpractice lawsuits.

This report is the third in a series of analyses on patient safety by this same group. The first study, “To Err is Human,” was released in 1999 and revealed there were as many as 100,000 U.S. deaths annually attributed to preventable medical mistakes. Our Boca Raton medical malpractice attorneys have learned a more recent study by another group has pinned that number more accurately at 400,000.

As far as why diagnostic mistakes are occurring, researchers say there are a number of various factors. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not simply the physician making a mistake. For one thing, there is a fundamental lack of communication and collaboration between doctors, nurses, patients and families. And when a doctor does make an error in the diagnostic process, he or she doesn’t necessarily get feedback. The whole privacy culture of health care is such that there is very limited transparency when it comes to disclosure of mistakes. That means there is little opportunity to analyze what went wrong and improve the process for next time.

Another problem identified by the researchers is new technology. Of course, computerizing records was supposed to simplify processes and improve accuracy. Unfortunately, though, many doctors and nurses have complained these systems are difficult to use.

Study authors say in order to improve patient safety, the computer systems need an overhaul, as does the level of communication when a wrong or missed diagnosis does happen. Doctors need to be made aware when they made a mistake, even if it doesn’t result in significant harm or lead to a medical malpractice lawsuit.

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Additional Resources:

Most Americans will get a wrong or missed diagnosis at least once in their lives, Sept. 22, 2015, By Lena H. Sun, The Washington Post

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