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Study suggests diagnostic errors are alarmingly prevalent

New research suggests that every patient suffers from diagnostic errors at some point, and preventing these errors may require substantial policy changes.

As many people in Brooklyn have learned firsthand, medical diagnostic errors can have devastating effects. Often, a patient's treatment and prognosis depend on a timely, correct diagnosis. Unfortunately, according to CBS News, a new study from the Institute of Medicine indicates that diagnostic errors occur all too frequently and affect millions of people. Alarmingly, virtually every patient in the U.S. can expect to experience at least one diagnostic error at some point.

Dangers of diagnostic errors

Diagnostic errors can lead to various adverse outcomes. An incorrect diagnosis can result in a patient undergoing medically unnecessary treatments that may have harmful or even deadly side effects. Failure to diagnose or incorrect diagnosis can also prevent patients from receiving needed care, which may give rise to complications that should have been avoided.

The overall prevalence of these errors is unknown, since they are not always identified or reported back to the responsible medical professional. However, the available data suggests that diagnostic errors take a huge toll on patients. U.S. News reports the following troubling figures from the IOM study:

  • As many as 17 percent of adverse events that occur in hospitals involve diagnostic errors, according to an analysis of medical charts.
  • Diagnostic errors are the most common form of negligence cited in successful medical malpractice claims.
  • Research shows that diagnostic errors play a role in about 10 percent of all patient deaths.
  • Data on wrongful death medical malpractice claims reveals that diagnostic errors are twice as likely to prove fatal as other medical mistakes.

Unfortunately, many of these conclusions are based on limited data, so the total number of diagnostic errors that occur on a yearly basis is unknown. Still, the available figures indicate that these errors pose a prevalent problem and a significant threat to patients.

Why these errors persist

Various factors can cause delayed, missed or incorrect diagnoses. CBS News notes that inadequate communication between different healthcare providers and patients is a common cause of diagnostic errors. The current healthcare culture may also contribute to this problem. Often, doctors receive little feedback about errors and feel pressure to conceal the errors that they are aware of. This lack of transparency may make reducing diagnostic errors a challenging task.

Experts point to a few changes, such as enhanced patient involvement and greater disclosure of errors, that could help address this issue. However, experts also worry that, in the absence of such changes, these errors may only become more common as the process of providing care grows more complex.

Victims may have legal options

Although some diagnostic errors might be impossible to avoid, many occur because doctors fail to observe standard protocols or consider all of the available information. Depending on the circumstances, these professional lapses might constitute negligence. As a result, the victims of these errors may be able to seek compensation for their pain and suffering, medical costs and other financial losses.

In New York, victims of medical negligence or malpractice must show that a healthcare provider did not adhere to a professional standard of care. Often, victims must utilize the testimony of a qualified medical professional and other evidence to prove that they suffered from substandard care. Given the complexity of this task, victims may benefit from consulting with a medical malpractice attorney for guidance during the claim process.