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Leading Cause of Medical Malpractice Claims: Misdiagnosis

Elderly patient consulting with doctor.
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

When most of us think of medical malpractice, we tend to think of an error that occurred on the operating table.

In fact, however, the most common settings for medical mistakes are not surgical wards. They are doctor’s offices and emergency departments, where doctors diagnose what’s wrong with you. 

The Impact of Diagnostic Errors

A recent article in the medical journal Diagnosis focused on the significance of diagnostic errors, pointing out that 34 percent of medical malpractice claims resulting from a patient’s death or serious disability were caused by inaccurate or delayed diagnoses. Twenty-eight percent of total payouts were attributable to diagnostic errors.

The study examined data covering a 10-year period from a database comprising 28.7% of all closed medical-malpractice claims in the U.S. Using that data, researchers identified 11,592 claims that alleged diagnostic errors, nearly three-quarters of them stemming from erroneous or missed diagnoses involving the “Big Three” diseases: cancer, infections, and vascular events such as strokes and heart attacks. Outpatient clinics were the primary location for missed cancer diagnoses, while emergency departments are where most vascular missed diagnoses occurred.

The article pointed out that the impact of missed diagnoses in the U.S. is largely unknown – estimates on the number of people who have been harmed by them range from 40,000 to 4 million. The authors characterized their study as “a first step toward a national epidemiological estimate of serious misdiagnosis-related harms.”

“Serious harms are disproportionately due to failures in clinical judgment,” the authors concluded. “Research and quality improvement initiatives should target interventions that improve clinical diagnosis for high-harm diseases in specific practice settings such as stroke in the ED, sepsis in the hospital, and lung cancer in primary care.”

Take Steps to Reduce Risk

So, if you find yourself in one of those settings – or any medical venue, for that matter – what might you do to reduce the likelihood of a misdiagnosis?

The best way is to become an active member of your health-care team. Tell your doctors about every aspect of your medical history, your medications, your allergies. Do your own research and gather as much information as you can from the doctor. Be assertive and speak up if you have questions.

So, if you find yourself in one of those settings — or any medical venue, for that matter — what might you do to reduce the likelihood of a misdiagnosis?

And if you believe you may have been the victim of malpractice, you’ll want to consult with a skilled attorneyskilled attorney who focuses their work in that complex area of law.

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