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Frequently Asked Questions About Misdiagnosis


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What Is Misdiagnosis?
Misdiagnosis is a failure or delay in diagnosis. Errors can occur as a result of various single flaws within a healthcare system: a physician's lack of medical knowledge or failure to recognize patterns of disease or not considering all possible diagnoses; clinical sloppiness; lack of follow-up by a physician; failure to communicate test results; faulty data gathering; faulty information processing; failure to verify diagnosis and gather new data. Each of these flaws alone can lead to a diagnostic error that results in inappropriate and/or inadequate treatment.
 
How Often Do Diagnostic Errors Occur and What Is The Impact?
A poll commissioned by the National Patient Safety Foundation found that one in six people have personally experienced a medical diagnosis error. Furthermore, according to a 2005 meta analysis, funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and published in Advances in Patient Safety, diagnosis errors represent 10 to 30 percent of all medical error cases.
 
Can Misdiagnosis Result In Death?
Yes. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that of 300 closed malpractice claims, 59 percent involved diagnostic errors that harmed patients and 30 percent resulted in death. Additionally, a 2003 paper published by the American Medical Association found that at least four percent of all U.S. patients who die in a hospital might have survived had their diagnosis been correct. In fact, it is estimated that diagnosis errors lead to death in as many as one in 20 patient deaths.
 
What Causes Diagnostic Errors?
A 2005 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that cognitive error, often referred to as "premature closure," is the single most common cause of diagnosis errors. Premature closure occurs when a clinician arrives at an initial diagnosis that seems to fit the facts then does not consider other reasonable possibilities.
 
Does Misdiagnosis Only Happen In Hospitals And Emergency Rooms?

Misdiagnosis can happen to anyone - whether in a crowded hospital or in a small family practice. However, research indicates a prevalence of misdiagnosis in the ER where complex decision making is paired with above average uncertainty and stress. In fact, it is estimated that half of ER-related malpractice lawsuits involve misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis or failure to diagnose.

 
How Are Diagnosis Errors Measured?

Misdiagnosis typically occurs due to cognitive error - failure to consider all likely diagnoses. With the exponential increase in biomedical knowledge it is humanly impossible for a clinician to remember the various symptoms and signs associated with all diagnostic possibilities. The breadth and depth of knowledge associated with more than 10,000 diagnoses can lead to cognitive errors and diagnostic errors that are difficult to measure. Unlike most medical errors, which are usually errors of commission, diagnosis errors are usually errors of omission and therefore are difficult to identify. Typically, misdiagnosed cases surface through malpractice litigation, morbidity and mortality conferences and scattered feedback from patients and physicians.

 
What Is The Economic Impact of Misdiagnosis?

The Institute of Medicine (IMO) estimates that $17 to $29 billion is spent annually on unnecessary or inaccurate patient care as a result of misdiagnosis. If malpractice figures are added the figure jumps significantly as was reported in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services. The annual report found that the average medical malpractice payment, made due to diagnosis related malpractice in the U.S., was $307,418 per case and 5,611 diagnostic-related medical malpractice payments were made.

 
How Can Diagnostic Errors Be Prevented?

Diagnosis reminder systems provide an effective option to prevent diagnostic errors by arming physicians with the most up-to-date and relevant clinical information. Diagnosis reminder systems decrease diagnosis errors by providing physicians with a list of likely diagnoses for a given set of signs and symptoms and the most up-to-date and relevant clinical information about the potential diagnoses. In fact, a study by the University of Virginia in December 2005 found that in 10 percent of cases, a diagnosis reminder system caused the user to consider a major diagnosis that had not been considered, thus, the study concluded that Web-based diagnosis reminder systems could reduce diagnostic omissions and the number of medical errors thereby improving patient safety and quality of care.

 
As A Patient, What Can I Do To Avoid Being Misdiagnosed?

There is no guaranteed way to ensure that misdiagnosis will be avoided. In general, patients should always provide their physicians with as much information as possible when it comes to their symptoms, recent travel, outdoor activities, past medical history etc. Patients should also ask their physician which diagnosis or diagnoses are being investigated and/or treated.