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Study suggests that diagnostic errors affect virtually every patient

A new study indicates that diagnostic errors occur roughly once in each patient’s lifetime, sometimes with devastating effects.

Today, doctors in Kew Gardens and other parts of New York have a greater variety of tests, data and information than ever to utilize when they make medical diagnoses. Unfortunately, the availability of these resources doesn't guarantee that these professionals won't make potentially harmful diagnostic errors. Alarmingly, according to a new Institute of Medicine study, these errors occur so frequently that literally every person is likely to suffer from one at some point.

How common are diagnostic errors?

According to U.S. News, the IOM study did not estimate the overall prevalence of diagnostic errors. However, the study notes that diagnostic errors are the primary factor cited in paid malpractice claims. Compared to other mistakes, these errors are twice as likely to result in death. According to research, about 10 percent of hospital deaths apparently involve diagnostic errors. Additionally, medical chart data shows that about 17 percent of adverse events in hospitals occur due to these errors.

What are the costs of these errors?

An article from the New England Journal of Medicine notes that diagnostic errors often have both clinical and financial costs. Failure to diagnose typically results in a delay of necessary treatment, while misdiagnosis can lead to the administration of medically unnecessary treatments. Both mistakes can have devastating medical and financial consequences.

According to the same source, the cost of these errors has only grown as healthcare has advanced. As more effective treatments have become available, the medical toll that delayed or incorrect diagnoses take has grown. Additionally, the advent of more expensive treatments for late-stage diseases means that diagnostic mistakes often have a steep financial cost.

Can diagnostic errors be prevented?

U.S. News explains that diagnostic errors often happen as a result of issues with communication or information availability. For example, collaborative care that isn't properly coordinated can increase the likelihood of errors, as can poor communication between patients and doctors. Electronic medical records also may provide unclear information or prove difficult to access, further raising the risk of mistakes.

Sadly, the issue of diagnostic errors hasn't been widely studied or addressed. According to the NEJM article, the following factors may prevent doctors and researchers from focusing more closely on this problem:

  • The current medical culture in the U.S., which deters doctors from admitting or discussing errors openly
  • The challenges inherent to categorizing diagnostic errors and determining when they have occurred
  • The belief that preventing diagnostic errors through systemic changes will be more difficult than reducing other errors in the same manner

Both the IOM study and the NEJM article conclude that better definition and tracking of diagnostic errors is a prerequisite to addressing this problem. Unfortunately, such changes are unlikely to occur quickly, leaving patients exposed to potentially devastating and unnecessary medical complications.

Do diagnostic errors constitute malpractice?

Some diagnostic errors may be virtually unavoidable, considering the information that is available at the time of the diagnosis. However, when a physician makes an error that a competent professional should have avoided, the mistake may represent malpractice. For instance, oversights of available information, misinterpretations of medical data or failure to detect physical symptoms may all provide grounds for medical malpractice claims.

In New York, people making medical malpractice claims must show that a physician failed to provide a professional standard of care and that physical injury occurred as a result. To do so, victims may need to incorporate testimony from qualified medical professionals, along with medical records and other objective evidence. To ensure that their claims are supported as thoroughly as possible, victims may benefit from consulting with a medical malpractice attorney during this process.

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