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Intensive Care Unit Deaths & Misdiagnosis

Most of the time, diagnosis errors–like a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis–refer to situations where a medical professional makes a mistake that causes a patient to delay receiving the treatment they need. This is especially common in cases like radiology errors, where doctors misread test slides, often giving a patient the impression that they are healthy when they are not. These mistakes can be the difference between life and death, and it is critical that hospitals and doctors be incentivized to do everything reasonable to avoid these mistakes.

However, misdiagnoses do not just affect seemingly-healthy patients. There are also many instances where a patient is obvious ill but doctors continue to attribute the problem to the wrong ailment. That issue was discussed recently in a General Surgery News story. The article examines the results of a new research project which looked at possible diagnosis mistakes affecting those who pass away while in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Essentially the research project should to get an idea of how many people in the ICU were misdiagnosed and how many, if any, of those diagnosis mistakes led to the patient’s death.

The results are shocking.

Misdiagnosis in the ICU
All told, researcher found that at many as 28% of patients in the ICU die with a misdiagnosis. Perhaps just as tragic, about 8% of all ICU patients have a major misdiagnosis which results in their death. These figures show that, far from being some very rare isolated mistake, diagnosis problems are rampant, with patients facing risks at a rate far higher than any would presume reasonable.

One of the lead researchers on the project even went so far as to say these estimates are conservative, and the problem is likely more widespread. He clarifies, “Since we did not include non–autopsy-based studies in our analysis, we did not evaluate misdiagnoses that did not result in death, but that are likely associated with increased morbidity health care costs.”

This is not a small caveat, considering that most former patients do not actually have an autopsy performed. According to this project, only about 43% of patients who died in the ICU over the time period of the study (1966-2011) received an autopsy. And there are concerns that autopsies are decreasing in use–allowing medical mistakes to be buried along with the individual.

The results that were obtained included cumulative information from 32 separate projects involving over 5,800 autopsies of former patients who died while in an intensive care unit. The rates of diagnosis errors varied considerably between these studies. However, in most of them the most serious misdiagnosis, included vascular errors and uncontrolled infection.

This study offers an important lesson to local residents whose loved one died while at a hospital, including in the ICU. Losing a close friend or family member is perhaps the hardest thing one ever has to deal with. Yet, that situation is made worse when the loss was caused by poor medical care or basic mistakes. Do not automatically assume that a loved one’s passing in the ICU was inevitable. At the very least, if you have suspicions that medical professionals did not properly diagnose all medical problems, consider seeking accountability to learn more.

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