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Study reveals the top conditions that doctors misdiagnose

Learn what you can do to reduce your risk as a patient

One of the most annoying things for a patient to experience is to discover that she has been misdiagnosed. This means the person recognized something was wrong, went to a doctor or hospital, paid for professional medical evaluation, and got bad information.

It’s also one of the most common complaints that I hear from potential clients as an experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney. In some cases, a physician error in making the wrong diagnosis is more of an inconvenience and annoyance, as opposed to a cause of long-term effects. In other cases, though, it can mean the difference between life and death.

The National Academy of Medicine defines a diagnostic error as the failure to make an accurate and timely explanation of the patient’s health problems or the failure to communicate that explanation to the patient.

A recent article in the peer-reviewed medical journal Diagnosis provides some valuable insight into the most common diagnostic errors. The research team from Johns Hopkins University came up with conclusions based on analysis of a large medical malpractice database.

Some general estimates from their data analysis are eye-opening:

• 12 million Americans are harmed by a diagnostic error each year in primary care alone.

• One-third of these diagnostic errors resulted in serious permanent damage or immediate or inevitable death.

• At least 4 million people were seriously harmed each year in the United States by diagnostic errors.

• At least 1.7 million people die annually from diagnostic error malpractice in America.

Emergency rooms and clinic or office visits

The study found that most diagnostic errors take place in ambulatory or outpatient settings, rather than during hospital admissions. Outpatient settings include an emergency room visit or appointment in a clinic or office setting.

Of the most severe cases of misdiagnosis—meaning those that cause permanent patient harm or death—an astounding 71.2% of the cases occurred in the emergency room or office/clinic setting. Approximately half of the cases of misdiagnosis involved general care physicians, rather than specialists.

As a former hospital administrator, I’ve always been an advocate for patients and their family members to speak up if a diagnosis or proposed treatment just doesn’t seem right. The old saying goes “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and sometimes that involves requesting a second-opinion consultation with a specialist.

The study results suggest to me that if you have questions about a general physician’s diagnosis or conclusion, it’s a good idea to get seen by a specialist.

The most common severe areas of diagnosis errors

According to the study, there are three areas where about 75% of all severe harm caused by diagnosis errors occur. These include the following:

Vascular misdiagnosis

This category includes stroke, myocardial infarction (heart attack), venous thromboembolism, aortic aneurysm and dissection, and arterial thromboembolism. According to the research, misdiagnosis of this type is most common in inpatient (hospitalized) and emergency room care.

I’ve handled many lawsuits in this area and understand the serious risk to health and life that misdiagnosis and delay of treatment can present.

In one case that I recently resolved, a patient repeatedly went to the emergency room complaining of the worst headache of his life. The emergency physicians discharged him without a proper workup. It turned out that he had been experiencing a dissection of one of the carotid vessels going to his head. With the delayed diagnosis and treatment, this young man experienced a massive stroke that left him permanently disabled. Sadly, it could have been avoided if his doctors had done a proper workup, rather than simply going through the motions.

Infection misdiagnosis

This includes sepsis, meningitis and encephalitis, spinal abscess, pneumonia, and endocarditis. According to the research, misdiagnosis of this type is most common in inpatient (hospitalized) and emergency room care.

Quite often, some of these conditions are related to post-surgical complications. I have represented many clients whose surgeons, physicians, and nurses ignored or downplayed signs of a serious infection or sepsis after surgery. Medical experts know that the best patient outcomes occur when an infection or sepsis is identified and treated quickly.

Cancer misdiagnosis

This area includes lung cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and melanoma. According to the research, misdiagnosis of this type is most common in outpatient settings, like a doctor’s office or clinic.

I think any layperson can easily understand that it’s not a good idea to delay treatment of cancer. I’ve handled cases where cancer screening tests returned results of an early stage cancer that were never communicated to the patient. In the meantime, the cancer continued to grow and advance into a more serious stage that’s harder to treat.

You can improve your patient safety on test results with two easy steps. First, any time your doctor orders a test, ask for a print out of the details of what is being ordered and how long it will take for the results to come back. Also ask for an explanation of why she is ordering the test and what it might show. Second, follow up to get the written test results, in case you don’t hear back from your physician. Ask your doctor to explain what the test results mean.

Failures in clinical judgment

For all of these serious conditions, the researchers also concluded that clinical judgment failures were by far the biggest contributing cause to misdiagnosis.

In my experience, as a Texas medical malpractice attorney, some physicians and healthcare providers have become so glued to their computer screens that they hardly notice the patient sitting in front of them. You can reduce your risk as a patient by repeatedly describing in detail the reason for your visit, including all of your signs and symptoms and the history of how they developed. Don’t rely on nurses or techs to communicate accurately to the doctor what you’ve told them. Anything that you can do to get your physician to look at you as an individual patient, rather than a checkbox on the computer screen, will be a step in the right direction.

We are here to help

if you or a family member has been seriously injured because of misdiagnosis and delay treatment, a top-rated experienced Texas medical malpractice attorney can help you evaluate your potential case.

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.


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