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Medical Errors Are Common

By on February 27, 2013

Missed or wrong diagnoses are common in primary care and may put some patients at risk of serious complications. Mistakes in surgery and medication prescribing have been at the center of patient safety efforts, but researchers say less attention has been paid to missed diagnoses in the doctor’s office.

Because of how common they are, those errors may lead to more patient injuries and deaths than other mistakes, according to David Newman-Toker from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, who co-wrote a commentary on the study. See the study results in JAMA Internal Medicine. A 2010 report from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that one in seven Medicare patients are injured during hospital stays, and adverse events during the course of care contribute to the deaths of 180,000 patients every year (pdf). Only heart disease and cancer are responsible for more deaths in America. We have a problem!

“We have every reason to believe that diagnostic errors are a major, major public health problem,” Newman-Toker said. “You’re really talking about at least 150,000 people per year, deaths or disabilities that are resulting from this problem.”

HepBFor the study, researchers used electronic health records to track 190 diagnostic errors made during primary care visits at one of two healthcare facilities. In each of those cases, the misdiagnosed patient was hospitalized or turned up back at the office or emergency room within two weeks.

The study team found the type of missed diagnosis varied widely. Pneumonia, heart failure, kidney failure and cancer each accounted for between 5% and 7% of conditions doctors initially diagnosed as something else. Most diagnostic errors could have caused moderate or severe harm to the patient, the researchers determined. Of the 190 patients with diagnostic errors, 36 could potentially have had serious permanent damage and 27 could have died.

Patients should talk to their doctors and members of the care team if they have concerns. Also, it’s okay to change your mind if you want a second opinion or to have another provider to check up on you. It’s your health, take charge.



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