The international health review journal BMJ Quality & Safety crunched the numbers from three broad medical studies and estimated that more than 5% of adult outpatients with acute conditions were misdiagnosed — or approximately 12 million patients each year — and that half of those errors could “potentially be harmful.”
That’s an estimated 6 million U.S. patients annually who face complications, or worse, because their original malady was left untreated, improperly medicated, or possibly mischaracterized completely. At a minimum, mistakes of this sort invariably lead to needless pain and suffering.
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“Diagnostic error is one of the most important safety problems in healthcare today, and inflicts the most harm. Major diagnostic errors are found in 10% – 20% of autopsies, suggesting that some 40,000 – 80,000 patients die annually in the US from diagnostic errors,” the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine states.
At least one in three patients has experienced some sort of diagnostic error, the organization said. According to researchers, such errors are responsible for “the largest fraction of malpractice claims, the most severe patient harm, and the highest total of penalty payouts,” the organization indicates.
Indeed, in many instances, especially when negligence or incompetence is a clear factor, those who have been harmed because of errors and oversights made by medical personnel have received financial compensation after filing personal injury lawsuits.
Generally speaking, a diagnostic error is a failure to quickly and accurately find the source of a patient’s medical issue or to communicate it properly. Diagnoses failures mean the true cause of the illness or injury was missed completely, proven incorrect, or resulted in delayed treatment.
There are two main types of diagnostic errors — cognitive and systemic. The former refers to mistakes made in the mind of the medical practitioner, while the second is caused by errors in the health care treatment process.
Health care in the U.S. has grown more complicated and expensive, requiring coordination and stacks of paperwork between doctors, insurance carriers, patients, and medical specialists. Not surprisingly then, the number of cases in which misdiagnoses or improper treatment caused unnecessary harm to a patient show no signs of falling.
In fact, many diagnostic errors involve breakdowns in the communication and coordination of patient care as a result of the complexities of modern health care bureaucracies.
According to a report posted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “diagnostic errors receive little attention — a major factor in perpetuating unacceptable rates of diagnostic error. Diagnostic errors are fundamentally obscure, health care organizations have not viewed them as a system problem, and physicians responsible for making medical decisions seldom perceive their own error rates as problematic.”
Another report published by the same organization attributed many errors to overconfidence among physicians, if not arrogance: “We argue that physicians in general underappreciate the likelihood that their diagnoses are wrong and that this tendency to overconfidence is related to both intrinsic and systemically reinforced factors.”