Study sheds light on the murky world of misdiagnosis

A new study into patient safety suggests misdiagnoses are widespread and under-reported.

Ever since its groundbreaking report "To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System" was released 16 years ago, which highlighted the harm caused by medical errors, the Institute of Medicine has pioneered studies into how to improve patient safety. Recently it came out with another report, called "Improving Diagnosis in Health Care," that highlights the problem of misdiagnoses in the health care industry, according to US News & World Report. The report revealed that misdiagnosis is a widespread problem, often caused by a health care work culture that is inefficient at correcting its mistakes.

A widespread problem

Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion reached by the study was that determining just how many misdiagnoses occur every year is actually impossible. The researchers noted that many misdiagnoses go unreported, either because of fears of reprisals or because the misdiagnosis is never discovered. Nonetheless, the study's authors say that indirect evidence suggests that most Americans will suffer from a misdiagnosis at least once in their lives.

That frightening conclusion was based on the fact that approximately five percent of outpatient visits result in a delayed or incorrect diagnosis every year. Furthermore, chart reviews suggest that 17 percent of adverse patient events at hospitals are caused by a misdiagnosis.

Improving health care

As CBS News reports, the study's authors say there are a number of reasons for why misdiagnoses are so widespread. The study noted, for example, that the work culture at many health care facilities discourages disclosure of diagnostic errors, thus making it difficult for doctors to improve their diagnostic skills. A lack of communication between health care providers and patients was also cited as a reason. Finally, the increasing complexity of health care means that there are simply more opportunities for things to go wrong during diagnosis.

Fixing the problem will require both greater transparency on the part of health care facilities and a health care environment that encourages increased collaboration. The study also says that patients should have increased access to medical records and that they should be encouraged be more directly involved in the diagnostic process, such as by feeling comfortable asking their doctor questions about his or her diagnosis.

Medical malpractice

A delayed or wrong diagnosis can have severe repercussions since it can be the starting point for a chain of poor decisions, including prescribing incorrect medication and ordering unnecessary tests, that can negatively impact a patient's health. Patients who may have been harmed by a medical error, such as a misdiagnosis, should contact a personal injury attorney with experience in medical malpractice cases. Such an attorney can advise patients about their legal options and may be able to help them pursue financial compensation.