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Millions Affected by Medical Misdiagnosis, Study Shows

Emerging research conducted by personnel at Veterans Affairs in Texas suggests that diagnostic errors affect at least 1 in 20 U.S. adults. The results, which were published in the April 17 online edition of BMJ Quality & Safety, highlight the prevalence of diagnosis mistakes in American hospitals, and the ensuing injuries that often result from a medical misdiagnosis.

Researchers sourced data from two prior studies that employed algorithms to find patterns of doctor visits following irregular clinical findings related to colorectal cancer, both indicative of diagnostic mistakes. A separate third study looked at consecutive cases of diagnosed lung cancer.

By extrapolating the rate of diagnostic error from the three studies and applying it to the U.S. adult population, the researchers determined that roughly 12 million Americans are misdiagnosed in a clinical setting every year. And of these 12 million, approximately 50 percent may suffer some sort of injury or illness related to their diagnostic error.

Study examines rate of medical misdiagnoses

“In all three studies, diagnostic errors were confirmed through chart review and defined as missed opportunities to make a timely or correct diagnosis based on available evidence…This foundational evidence should encourage policymakers, healthcare organizations and researchers to start measuring and reducing diagnostic errors,” concluded the VA researchers.

Medical misdiagnoses are generally broken down into two types of errors, both of which can result in serious, if not life-threatening harm to the patient. The first may occur if a doctor or health care provider misses key symptoms and leaves a condition or illness completely undiagnosed. That condition then may continue to worsen or spread to other parts of the body, leaving the patient at risk for long-term or irreparable complications.

A misdiagnosis or incorrect diagnosis can also lead to trouble if, for example, a patient is erroneously diagnosed with cancer when in fact they don’t have the disease. The patient may then be subjected to radiation treatments, chemotherapy and other forms of therapy that are completely unmerited and put the individual at risk for further harm.

Earlier this year, another study on malpractice claim payouts found that medical misdiagnoses accounted for the bulk of compensation awarded to injured patients in the United States, whether recovered via jury verdicts or out-of-court settlements. Those who secure monetary damages through legal action were gravely harmed or lost a loved one through the negligence of a medical professional’s delayed diagnosis, misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose.

Prevalence of diagnostic errors

Misdiagnosis “happens all the time,” David Newman-Toker told The Washington Post.  An associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Newman-Toker says “This is an enormous problem, the hidden part of the iceberg of medical errors that dwarfs” other kinds of medical mistakes.

Mark L. Graber, an internist and founder of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, says of the medical community, “Overconfidence in our abilities is a major part of the problem…Physicians don’t know how error-prone they are.”  Diagnostic errors, according to recent studies, are prevalent in emergency rooms, hospitals and primary care visits.

Among the more commonly misdiagnosed conditions and illnesses today are:

  • Cancer
  • Infections such as pneumonia and meningitis
  • Heart Attack
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Lupus
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Kidney failure
  • Blocked Arteries
  • Aortic dissection