CBS News reports that each year 12 million adults who receive outpatient medical care are misdiagnosed in the United States. The report relies on a new study published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety. That 12 million number means one out of every twenty adult patients is misdiagnosed. Even worse, the researchers say that in half of those cases the misdiagnosis could result in severe harm.
According to CBS the researchers analyzed data from three prior studies and applied mathematical formulas to reach their results. They determined that the overall rate of missed diagnoses in the United States to be 5.08 percent. Of course, each case of a missed diagnosis results in a delayed diagnosis. The prediction that one half of these errors could result in severe harm is based on previous research.
Reporting on the same research, NBC News explains what the results of this study mean. Patients with heart failure, pneumonia, anemia, and lung cancer could have serious medical conditions that go unrecognized, and thus, untreated. Failing to treat some medical conditions, like cancer, as soon as possible can result in the condition getting worse or perhaps even becoming fatal when it otherwise would not have been.
NBC also interviewed Dr. Gordon Schiff, a patient safety expert and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Dr. Schiff believes that while this study is good in that it provides us with hard numbers, it probably actually underestimates the problem.
Dr. Hardeep Singh, the lead author of the study, told NBC that a variety of factors can contribute to these medical errors. Specifically, the outpatient environment can be very hectic, symptoms can be complex, and the time doctors spend with the patients they are diagnosing is more limited than ever. Additionally, many doctors lack the support and technical help that would allow them to take more time to focus on using proper clinical reasoning when making a diagnosis.
Dr. Singh’s hope is that providing this information will galvanize the medical community to improve things. He cites a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine that revealed that 98,000 people die each year from medical errors as one prior paper that lit a fire under the community.
Ways to Prevent Misdiagnosis
The CBS report lists some things patients can do to minimize the chance they will wind up victims of misdiagnosis. Those tips include:
1. Explain your full medical history to your doctor in a clear and chronological way, including key aspects of your family history like whether one of your parents has cancer.
2. Follow up with your physician and make sure you get your test results. Not hearing anything does not mean you can assume there is not a problem.
3. Be particularly vigilant if your symptoms include cough, abdominal pain, or shortness of breath, as people with those symptoms are most likely to be diagnosed.
Of course, no matter how vigilant you are, patients cannot prevent every error. The responsibility for proper diagnosing illness ultimately falls upon trained physicians.