Medical errors can be devastating for patients and their families and can change lives forever. In recent years, researchers have turned their attention to discovering the most common causes of errors by doctors and medical staff and what can be done to prevent them.
According to a study recently published in the journal BMJ, the most common cause of medical malpractice claims is not surgical or pharmaceutical errors, but rather a failure by primary care physicians to diagnose conditions properly. Indeed, the study found that misdiagnosis is the root cause of between 26 and 63 percent of all medical malpractice claims. The most common result of malpractice claims stemming from misdiagnoses was patient death, which occurred in 15 to 48 percent of cases, depending on location.
The authors of the BMJ study examined nearly 7,200 scholarly articles on medical malpractice claims in the U.S., Canada, France, Australia and the U.K. They discovered that the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions for adults were heart attacks and cancer, though misdiagnoses of ectopic pregnancies, bone fractures and appendicitis were also common. Meningitis and cancer were the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions among children. About 33 percent of all misdiagnosis cases in the U.S. resulted in a financial settlement.
Experts have pointed out that misdiagnoses are particularly difficult to prevent. In many cases, it may take years to determine that a patient was initially misdiagnosed. By the time a misdiagnosis is clear, it can be difficult to identify the physician responsible, which makes education efforts particularly challenging.
The occurrence of misdiagnoses impacts the care given to all patients, not just those who suffer injury. Because misdiagnoses are so common, many physicians choose to order redundant or unnecessary tests to ensure that they have exhausted every diagnostic possibility. Not only can this process be invasive and time consuming, it also drives the cost of medical care up for everyone.
In order to help combat this problem, experts have begun advising patients to become as educated as possible and to ask their doctors questions about the treatments they are receiving. Patients should be persistent, too, in following up when they believe something is wrong and their doctors are hesitant to believe them.