Diagnostic Errors in Medicine: How Common Are They?

Diagnostic Errors in Medicine How Common Are They

Last Updated on July 20, 2023

If your medical assessment is based on a diagnostic error it creates a number of potential issues. You could fail to get the treatment required, or you could get the wrong treatment based on an incorrect result.

The fact that payouts for diagnostic errors have exceeded $40 billion in the last 25 years is a testament to the fact that diagnostic errors can and do happen on a regular basis.

New ways of improving accuracy are helping to improve the situation. It has been shown that samples of saliva can be very revealing as a diagnostic tool, for instance.

Here is a look at what we know about diagnostic errors and some of the potential consequences.

Comparing diagnostic errors to other medical mistakes

There are various scenarios that can create disastrous and deadly outcomes for patients. Surgical procedural errors and unintended medication overdoses are two examples of the sort of mistakes that have led to medical negligence payouts.

If the last 25 years of recorded payouts is a reliable guide it is still the case that diagnostic errors account for the largest amount of payouts compared to other incidents such as surgical errors and dosage mistakes.

A study that first appeared in the British Medical Journal looked at a breakdown of payouts in the United States and concluded that diagnosis-related payments claim the biggest slice of the malpractice payout total over the last quarter of a century.

The number of patients who have suffered a misdiagnosis in the United States is estimated to be anywhere between 80,000 and more than 150,000 people over the last 25 years, although the precise number is not actually known.

What the facts and figures do highlight is that diagnostic errors are causing a greater level of harm and danger than previously envisaged.

What is a diagnostic error?

When someone suffers a misdiagnosis they are potentially exposed to the specter of suffering a significant or permanent injury. They might also pay the ultimate price and die from the misdiagnosis.

In general terms, a misdiagnosis can be categorized as an error made when assessing a patient that causes potentially harmful circumstances.

This could be when a condition is present, for example, but remains undetected as a result of a diagnostic error. An example of this would be when cancer is not detected as soon as it should have been. In this sort of situation, the patient could suffer a worse outcome than could have been achieved if a correct diagnosis had been made earlier.

It appears that there is a greater chance of a diagnostic error occurring when someone is going through outpatient care. Diagnostic errors in outpatient care were shown to account for nearly 70% of all recorded diagnostic errors reported in the study.

A worrying footnote to these statistics would be that although diagnostic errors were less prevalent in an inpatient setting, the errors were shown to have a more lethal outcome.

Diagnostic errors present a clear risk to patient safety. That is why it also makes sense to seek out further tests, such as using a sample of saliva, to try and get to the heart of your medical problems as quickly and accurately as possible.

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