The term “medical malpractice” often brings to mind errors made during surgery or the over-administration of prescription medications. However, a significant component of medical malpractice revolves around errors made during a patient’s diagnosis – which ultimately happen a lot more often and can be much more dangerous.
After conducting an extensive analysis of 25 years of U.S. malpractice claim payouts, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., revealed diagnostic errors account for the largest fraction of claims and cause the most severe harm to patients overall. In terms of financial impact, these errors resulted in the highest total of penalty payouts – amounting to $38.8 billion between 1986 and 2010.
A diagnostic error translates to a diagnosis that was missed, wrong or delayed, as discovered by further testing. These mistakes lead to injury either as a result of failure or delay to treat the condition – or from incorrect treatment given for a mistaken diagnosis.
According to the study’s researchers, the impact and significance of diagnostic errors has been downplayed by experts, because these types of mistakes are much more difficult to pinpoint and define.
“There’s more uncertainty about diagnostic errors than there are about treatment errors,” lead study author Dr. David Newman-Toker, an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told FoxNews.com. “It’s reasonable to say no nurse should ever administer a tenfold dose of chemotherapy or a medication to a patient allergic to that medication. Those events are easier to keep track of and easier to measure.
“Diagnostic errors are not quite like that,” he continued. “…Instead of having a very specific time that’s documented – with a diagnostic error, you don’t find out until later when someone is injured that it happened. That lag creates uncertainty, and that uncertainty (sparks ideas like) ‘It wasn’t reasonable for someone to have diagnosed it at the time.’ That’s where the debate starts.”
While Newman-Toker and his colleagues only examined diagnostic errors that rose to the level of malpractice payout, they estimate each year, between 80,000 and 160,000 U.S. patients suffer from potentially preventable injury or death related to medical misdiagnosis.