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New Study Examines Medical Malpractice Claims

Doctor Patient Older CoupleIncidences of medical malpractice affect families every day. Medical malpractice may take the form of drug prescribing errors or a claim may involve an alleged failure to diagnose an illness, such as a cancer misdiagnosis. Researchers have recently evaluated thousands of documents in an attempt to discover which types of medical mistakes are most likely to result in a complaint. The study, which was published on July 18, 2013 in BMJ Open, was conducted by Dr. Emma Wallace, a researcher at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, and three of her colleagues.

Claims commonly involve cancer misdiagnosis

More than 7,150 documents involving medical malpractice allegations were examined. The complaints represented a diversity of nationalities, including patients from the United States, Britain, Australia, France, and Canada. The researchers focused on claims against primary care physicians, based on the assumption that most patients visit those healthcare professionals prior to seeing a specialist.

The results of the study indicated that between 26 to 63 percent of all complaints involved failure to diagnose an illness. Of those, among adult patients, the most common mistake was a missed diagnosis for cancer and heart attack. Among juvenile patients, cancer and meningitis were cited as the most commonly missed diagnoses.

Doctors tend to agree that an early diagnosis of a disease such as cancer is critical for the best possible outcome for the patient. The researchers noted that the most frequently missed types of cancer appeared to include lung, breast, and colon cancers, as well as melanoma, a type of skin cancer.

The researchers further noted that of the complications cited in the complaints, fatality was the most frequent, accounting for between 15 to 48 percent of the cases. This seems to indicate that the more severe the consequence of alleged malpractice is, the more likely a patient or surviving family member is to file a complaint.

Other types of missed diagnoses included bone fractures, appendicitis, and ectopic pregnancies. An ectopic pregnancy is one in which the fetus is not viable and the mother’s life is in danger.

Drug errors also cited in medical malpractice claims

After missed diagnoses, the BMJ Open study revealed that the second most common reason for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit was an error in a medication prescription. For example, a doctor might prescribe the wrong dosage or prescribe a medication that reacts adversely with another drug the patient is already taking. These errors accounted for  between 6 to 20 percent of all complaints evaluated. Examples of the types of drugs that may have been improperly prescribed include psychiatric medications such as antidepressants and antipsychotics, as well as antibiotics, steroid drugs, and blood thinning medications.

Doctors recommend patient self-advocacy

Doctors and medical malpractice insurers have called for reforms to the system, citing an imperfect method for patient justice and the various challenges doctors must overcome for accurate diagnoses. Dr. Emma Wallace, the lead researcher of the study, noted that claims may prompt doctors to practice “defensive medicine” which involves “increased diagnostic testing, increased referral rates, prescription of unnecessary medication, and avoiding treating certain conditions or performing certain procedures.”

Despite the imperfect system, patients can take steps to safeguard their own health and prevent a cancer misdiagnosis by becoming their own advocates. One doctor interviewed after the study was published noted that patients shouldn’t hesitate to seek a second opinion if they feel they have a health issue.