Research sheds light on alarming prevalence of diagnostic errors

Diagnostic errors, which may range from misdiagnosis to failure to identify a health problem, are a concern for many patients in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, assessing how often these mistakes happen can be challenging. Many patients uncover these errors long after they occur and don't report them back to the responsible physician. Troublingly, though, new research suggests that diagnostic errors happen incredibly often and that every patient will eventually experience one.

All-too-common errors

The Institute of Medicine recently sought to determine how many people suffer harm from diagnostic errors in the U.S. The researchers weren't able to generate specific estimates for the number of errors that occur annually, due to inadequate tracking. However, according to U.S. News, they concluded that these errors happen in every healthcare setting on a daily basis, harming "countless" patients. They also projected that every patient will experience a potentially harmful misdiagnosis at some point.

The study also cites findings from past research, which indicates that incorrect and delayed diagnoses are a common cause of harmful outcomes for patients. One of the referenced studies found that these errors are the top factor cited in paid malpractice claims and that they are twice as likely to cause fatal complications as other medical errors. Tragically, another cited study shows that about one-tenth of patient deaths involve diagnostic mistakes.

The recent IOM study isn't the only one that suggests delayed or incorrect diagnoses affect more patients than many people would suspect. According to NBC News, an analysis published in 2014 revealed that in local healthcare clinics and emergency rooms, about one out of 20 patients are misdiagnosed. This represents about 12 million Americans who suffer diagnostic errors each year, about half of which may be harmful, per the study.

Causes of diagnostic mistakes

The factors that underlie diagnostic errors may be varied, as U.S. News notes. The following issues can all enhance the risk of these errors occurring:

  • Poor communication between doctors and patients
  • Inadequate coordination or communication between medical professionals who are caring for one patient
  • Incorrect or careless assumptions on the part of physicians
  • The use of medical record systems that don't provide clear or comprehensive information

Some diagnostic errors simply are not reasonably avoidable. However, as the factors cited above indicate, many may occur due to preventable mistakes on the part of medical professionals. In these cases, victims may have legal remedies.

Legal options for victims

Medical care that diverges from an acceptable professional standard may constitute medical malpractice in Pennsylvania. If a victim can show that a qualified physician shouldn't reasonably have made a diagnostic error, he or she may be able to seek various damages through a medical malpractice claim. These include economic damages, which address direct financial losses, and non-economic damages, which compensate victims for outcomes such as pain and suffering.

Misdiagnoses can lead to various harmful outcomes for patients. These errors may justify unnecessary medical procedures, delay appropriate treatment, worsen the prognosis of a condition and cause significant emotional distress. Documenting all of these outcomes and securing appropriate recompense can be challenging, however. To complete a more compelling claim, victims may benefit from consulting with an attorney who possesses experience in these challenging cases.