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Diagnostic Errors Cause Permanent Injuries, Death

Diagnostic errors are associated with severe medical conditions, permanent injuries, and even death in the United States. The quest to improve patient safety, however, tends to focus more on medication errors, surgical errors and infections -- despite the fact that errors in diagnosis cause thousands of deaths each year.

What Is a Diagnostic Error in the Medical Community?

A diagnostic error can include any of the following:

  • Missed Diagnosis: This occurs when a patient's condition is never actually diagnosed. Missed diagnosis is common for patients with chronic pain, fatigue, or other unexplained symptoms.

  • Incorrect Diagnosis: A patient is diagnosed with one condition but is later discovered to be suffering from another.

  • Delayed Diagnosis: Cancer is the leading condition a medical malpractice attorney sees that is associated with delayed diagnosis. A delay often occurs when doctors fail to diagnose a condition until symptoms persist or become worse.

How Big is the Problem of Diagnostic Errors in Medicine?

According to a recent Harvard Medical Practice study, diagnostic errors account for approximately 17 percent of preventable medical errors that cause injuries or deaths in hospital settings. Furthermore, continuous studies over four decades of autopsy victims revealed that an alarming 9 percent of victims experienced some type of diagnostic error that was undetected before death.

Common Causes of Diagnostic Errors

There is a wide variety of reasons diagnostic errors occur in the medical profession. Some of the most common include:

  • Heuristics: Heuristics are short cuts or rules of thumb that are used to help provide a provisional diagnosis when a patient has common symptoms. Although heuristics can be extremely useful in determining possible medical conditions, relying on them too heavily can be detrimental to a patient's health.

  • Poor Communication: Especially common in emergency rooms and surgical settings, inadequate communication is the root cause in thousands of misdiagnosis cases. In fact, breakdowns in communication between patients and health care providers and between clinicians are the second leading cause of diagnostic errors.

  • Failure to Review Patient Medical History: In many cases, doctors do not have adequate information about patients' medical histories to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Transferring and reviewing medical records, along with thorough evaluations of patient-reported medical histories, can help significantly reduce the number of diagnostic errors.

The most common types of conditions that are the subject of medical diagnostic errors are pneumonia, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and cancer -- all of which can be deadly. It is therefore all the more important for doctors to pay attention to all available information, and for patients to advocate for their own health.

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