Study finds missed, delayed diagnoses affect literally every patient

New research suggests that millions of diagnostic errors occur each year and that virtually every patient will experience one at some point.

Diagnostic errors can be among the most harmful medical mistakes, as they can result in medically unnecessary or delayed treatments. Unfortunately, these errors can be incredibly difficult to detect and prevent. Illustrating the issue, a new study suggests that virtually every patient in Santa Fe Springs will suffer from at least one missed or delayed diagnosis in his or her lifetime. Sadly, many of these errors may have catastrophic consequences.

Prevalence of diagnostic errors

According to The Washington Post, tracking and measuring diagnostic errors can be challenging for several reasons. Many errors aren't caught immediately, and the responsible doctors may never be informed that a specific diagnosis was incorrect. Additionally, the current U.S. healthcare culture may make doctors feel that they can't admit to errors or call attention to them.

For this reason, the new Institute of Medicine study did not yield conclusive findings about the number of diagnostic errors that occur yearly. However, the study authors listed estimates from another study that about one in twenty people in outpatient settings suffer missed or late diagnoses. This translates to about 12 million patients per year who experience diagnostic errors, some of which may lead to catastrophic or fatal injuries.

Reducing harmful mistakes

Several factors may raise the risk that diagnostic errors will occur, according to the same study. These include:

  • Communication issues. Inadequate communication between patients and their various physicians can raise the risk of bad diagnoses.
  • Use of electronic records. The records system, which has been described as difficult to use, may impede some professionals in obtaining information they needed to make accurate diagnoses.
  • Lack of feedback. Most healthcare organizations aren't fully transparent, so physicians don't always find out that they have made errors.

The study authors suggested a few measures that could reduce diagnostic errors. Healthcare providers could foster a more collaborative approach and move away from punishing medical professionals for mistakes. Additionally, providers could develop systems for catching and tracking errors to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Unfortunately, many of these changes would require wide-reaching reforms that could take a significant amount of time to implement. Meanwhile, given the high frequency of diagnostic errors, patients in California can benefit from understanding their rights in the event of such errors.

Claiming diagnostic errors

Diagnostic errors may constitute malpractice, though this depends on the situation. If a competent medical professional could have reasonably been expected to make the correct diagnosis, given the information available at that time, an error may represent malpractice. Victims who can prove that malpractice occurred may be able to seek various economic and non-economic damages.

In California, victims of malpractice must file claims within one year of the date that they became aware of the diagnostic error. However, victims are not permitted to make claims more than three years after the error occurred. Given these short deadlines, people who have suffered injuries due to missed or incorrect diagnoses may benefit from consulting with a malpractice attorney as soon as feasible.