Missed Diagnoses and Other Medical Errors In Intensive Care Units

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine recently published an analysis of hospital intensive care units and the results were termed “surprising and alarming.” According to the researchers, more than 40,000 critically ill patients die every year when their doctors fail to diagnose deadly conditions. As many as one quarter of all patients who die in intensive care units may have been the victims of a missed diagnosis. If the study is correct, medical errors in ICUs across the country could cause more deaths annually than breast cancer.

While misdiagnosis was a problem in all medical settings, its prevalence among ICU patients was noteworthy. Misdiagnosis was 50 percent more frequent in an ICU than in other hospital patients. Half of all hospital deaths occurred either in the ICU or immediately after a stay in the ICU. As hospital deaths account for half of all the deaths in the United States, the number of deaths that involve an ICU stay is staggering. The study identified several common problems that, if corrected, could impact thousands of patients a year.

The mistakes made in the ICU were mostly considered errors of omission. That means that doctors did not do something they should have done given the condition of the patient. The conditions most often missed by ICU doctors were heart attack, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia and aspergillosis. Just those four conditions were responsible for one-third of missed diagnoses in the ICU. In terms of fatal misdiagnoses, heart attack and stroke were by far the most common ailments missed by ICU doctors.

The authors of the study are hopeful that the new research will help increase the funding and attention paid to misdiagnosis. Something obviously needs to be done to prevent or at least reduce the number of patients who die unnecessarily because their doctors fail to identify the severity of their medical condition.

Source: The Atlantic, “The Alarming Rate of Errors in the ICU,” by Cristine Russell, 28 August 2012