A report by the Institute of Medicine has brought attention to the frequency of diagnostic errors in healthcare and the outcomes of such mistakes. The report analyzed data from several studies, relying heavily on one particular study led by an accomplished physician from Johns Hopkins.
What is a Diagnostic Error?
An error is more than just assigning an incorrect underlying cause to a set of symptoms. Diagnostic errors are classified as one of three types: misdiagnosis (attributing symptoms to the wrong disease or condition), delayed diagnosis (failure to identify a diagnosis until a later time when symptoms and the underlying condition have become more progressed), and missed diagnosis (failure to attribute symptoms to any condition or disease). The study estimates that the rate of diagnostic errors is between 5-15%, with a much higher rate associated with certain types of cancers and disease. In many cases, a delayed, missed or misdiagnosis can result in serious injury and even death.
Why Aren’t Diagnostic Errors Making Headlines More Often?
There are several factors contributing to why medical diagnostic errors are being downplayed. The first is that data on these types of mistakes can be difficult to collect. For example, if a woman presents to a physician with symptoms that could be attributed to ovarian cancer, she may be sent home with a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Let’s say 6 months later, she visits her doctor with more severe symptoms and is ultimately diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The 6 month delay has given the aggressive cancer time to advance, making treatment more difficult than if she had been correctly diagnosed 6 months prior. Trying to gather data on cases such as these is extremely difficult. The data on patients who have a certain diagnosis is easier to gather, but there is not an efficient, streamlined process to obtain the number of visits a patient has made to a physician before an accurate diagnosis was made. Doctors may be hesitant to keep such records in fear of being sued over mistakes.
The second reason why experts believe diagnostic errors are flying under the public’s radar is that no one in medicine wants to create a bigger buzz around a problem that in and of itself is not fixable. Doctors are human and mistakes happen. But there’s also cost and time factors that contribute to the human element. Doctors are busier than ever and between patient loads and paperwork, they may not have the time to spend considering all the possible differential diagnoses for symptoms that, to them, seem to obviously point to a certain condition or disease. However, when an inaccurate diagnosis causes you to not seek treatment for the proper disease and leads to a significant decline in your health, mistakes are simply not acceptable.
The medical malpractice attorneys at Levin & Perconti have successfully represented victims of diagnostic errors and have the compassion and experience required to handle these complicated matters.
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