Diagnostic Mistakes Difficult To Address

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a database kept by the federal government containing the records of medical malpractice payments all across the country. In a review of all the successful medical malpractice claims of the past 25 years, errors in diagnosis were determined to be the most frequent, as well as the most deadly. Research into the roughly 350,000 malpractice claims that resulted in payments from 1986 to 2010 showed that undiagnosed problems, incorrectly diagnosed problems and health conditions where the diagnosis was improperly delayed accounted for 29 percent of all claims and 39 percent of all fatal malpractice cases.

Autopsy studies show that up to 20 percent of all deaths in America come from health conditions that were not diagnosed during the victim’s lifetime. Among the most common diagnostic mistakes are mistaking ectopic pregnancy for appendicitis and missing an aortic dissection with a diagnosis of severe heartburn. Even if those mistakes are eventually realized, the damage to the patient can be serious, even fatal. As common as these situations are, they make up merely a fraction of the diagnostic errors made every year.

One of the authors of the research pointed out that there is no public reporting requirement for hospitals regarding errors in diagnoses. The autopsy studies may highlight the problem. The truth is that a diagnostic error is not understood immediately. If a surgeon commits an error during a procedure, the results are immediate and potentially dramatic. When a diagnosis is missed, it may not be realized until the patient has died.

Source: The Washington Post, “Diagnostic errors are leading cause of successful malpractice claims,” by David Brown, 22 April 2013