In a study published on September 22, 2015 by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine entitled, Improving Diagnosis In Health Care, the study’s authors concluded that diagnostic errors (inadequate or delayed diagnoses) “persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients.”
The definition of diagnostic error used in the study is the failure to (a) establish an accurate and timely explanation of the patient’s health problem(s) or (b) communicate that explanation to the patient. A diagnosis is not accurate if it differs from the true condition a patient has, or does not have, or if it is imprecise and incomplete. An accurate and timely explanation of the health problem is meaningless unless the information reaches the patient so that a patient and health care professionals can act on the explanation.
(Overdiagnosis is defined as when a condition is diagnosed that is unlikely to affect the individual’s health and well-being. However, overdiagnosis is not a diagnostic error.)
The study estimated that five percent of adults in the United States who seek outpatient care each year experience a diagnostic error; diagnostic errors contribute to about ten percent of patient deaths; diagnostic errors account for six to seventeen percent of hospital adverse events; and, diagnostic errors represent the highest proportion of total medical malpractice payments, are nearly twice as likely to have resulted in the patient’s death compared to other medical malpractice claims, and are the leading type of paid medical malpractice claims.
The study determined that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error during their lifetime, which may have catastrophic consequences for some people. The study’s authors suggest that diagnostic errors will worsen in the future because of the increasing complexity involved in the delivery of health care and the diagnostic process.
The causes of diagnostic errors include inadequate collaboration and communication among clinicians, patients, and their families; a health care work system that is not properly designed to support the diagnostic process; limited feedback to health care providers about their diagnosis performance; and, a culture that discourages transparency and disclosure of diagnostic errors. Harm from diagnostic errors may delay or prevent providing appropriate treatment, may result in providing unnecessary or harmful treatment, and/or may cause psychological and financial harm to patients.
Arriving at a correct and timely diagnosis is critical to the patient being provided with the correct explanation for a health problem and to lead to appropriate subsequent health care decisions. While some diagnostic errors may not result in harm to patients, other patients who were subject to diagnostic errors may suffer devastating injuries.
If you or a loved one may be the victim of a diagnostic error or other medical negligence in the United States, you should promptly find a medical malpractice lawyer in your state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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