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Study Shows That Diagnostic Errors Are Leading Patient Safety Risk

Misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose account for more malpractice claims than any other error

For too many injured patients, the error in treatment comes right at the beginning of the process.

A 25-year study published in the BMJ found that errors in diagnosis account for 28.6% of paid malpractice claims. The study analyzed over 350,000 paid claims from 1986 to 2010 and the results give stark insight into the dangers of medical misdiagnosis. According to the BMJ study, over 40 percent of the diagnostic errors studied resulted in the patient's death, and another 33 percent resulted in permanent disability.

Senior author worried and fatigued doctorsDr. Newman-Toker, a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins, said that diagnostic errors are a symptom of a larger, systemic issue and it is the responsibility of physicians, hospitals and insurers to fix that problem. However, "there is no institute that views it as their problem," he said, according to the New York Times.

The reality is that every medical professional responsible for a patient owes a duty of care to provide that patient with safe and effective treatment - and that includes an accurate diagnosis. "You can't get the treatment right if you don't get the diagnosis right," said Dr. Newman-Toker.

Diagnosis is not an exact science, but doctors must follow accepted standards of care

No doctor can be expected to make the correct diagnosis for every patient, every time. Some medical conditions have similar or overlapping symptoms, and the same illness may manifest differently in different patients. However, those challenges are not an excuse for diagnosing physicians who fail to provide their patients with care that meets accepted standards.

Some patients are misdiagnosed because their doctors failed to order tests that were medically indicated. In other cases, test results are misread or misinterpreted. Failure to communicate between care providers can also lead to diagnostic errors, as errors happen in the hand-off process between physicians or when test results go lost or unreported.

Regardless of the cause of diagnostic errors, the implications for the patient can be serious. When a doctor fails to diagnose a medical condition entirely, that condition is allowed to progress untreated for some time, which can be deadly. And when a condition is wrongly diagnosed as a different condition, the patient may have to endure treatment for a condition he or she does not actually have, at significant expense and with significant side effects - all while the actual underlying condition goes untreated.

It's no wonder that so many cases of misdiagnosis lead to death or permanent disability. Doctors, insurance companies and healthcare administrators alike need to take responsibility for properly diagnosing and treating their patients - and when they fail to do so, they need to be held accountable. Often, medical malpractice litigation is the most effective way to show these negligent physicians the need to follow accepted standards of care in diagnosis.

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