Diagnostic Errors

Last week, NBC Nightly News reported on a shocking study by the National Academy of Medicine regarding medical errors in the United States. According to the report “most Americans will get a wrong or late diagnosis in their lifetimes… often with devastating effects.” Dr. John Ball, chairman of the Committee on Diagnostic Error in Medicine and an author of the study put it more bluntly by stating “everyone will experience one meaningful diagnostic error in their lifetime.”

The statistics are shocking. For example, the study analyzes that “diagnostic errors contribute to 10 percent of patient deaths” and a staggering “6 to 17 percent of adverse events in hospitals.” However, patients often never know these high and unacceptable numbers. The report explains that the lack of a uniform medical system in the United States contributes to keeping these numbers “under the radar” making it very difficult to quantify how many people are seriously injured by medical errors. The report calls this situation both an under-represented and understudied issue area in medicine.

The report suggests that a lack of basic standards, guidelines and communication between care providers contributes to these errors. For example, doctors rarely communicate with each other following a patient injury caused by a medical error. This makes it difficult to develop guidelines that can identify how to prevent these types of mistakes from occurring. The report calls for any consultation between doctors following a medical error to be paid for with a specific billing code so doctors are not discouraged from taking the time to properly identify how to remedy mistakes.

The report also calls for greater consultation between physicians, radiologists and pathologists noting that many errors are not the result of a missed diagnosis but a failure to communicate the diagnosis to the appropriate medical professional. In the cases where a patient dies from a failure to properly diagnose a condition, the report recommends “a return to the lost art of the autopsy” noting that autopsies have decreased in the recent years often because they are expensive and rarely covered by insurance. Finally, the report proposes creating a central location that uniformly monitors and keeps tabs on medical errors.

In its current state, the effects of these errors are real and heartbreaking. By way of example, NBC News highlights the story of Patrick Sheridan who suffered a cascading series of medical errors after he saw his physician for neck pain. His doctor first prescribed pain pills, physical therapy and acupuncture. Eventually, an MRI was ordered which found a mass in his spine. The mass was finally removed, biopsied and reported as benign or non-harmful to Patrick’s physician. 23 days later, the pathologist who performed the tests sent additional test results to the physician finding the mass to be a significant, aggressive tumor. The physician never saw this diagnosis. Within six months, the tumor had spread throughout Patrick’s body. He died a short time later at the age of 45.

At Leopold & Associates, our firm can only begin working to hold those accountable for medical errors after the mistake was made. But patients can take important steps to ensure they are doing all they can to ensure that they receive quality care. For example, we recommend researching your doctor ahead of time to see his or her qualifications or if the doctor has ever been found guilty of medical malpractice. Ask questions, no matter how basic or time consuming they may be; this is what the doctor is here for and it is important to understand both your diagnosis and your treatment options. If there are still lingering questions or you still have concerns, it can be a good idea to explore getting a second opinion. You can also review your medical records and ask questions about anything written in the records. As a patient, you have an absolute right to view you medical records. Finally, if a loved one unfortunately passes away from complications from a medical procedure, it is generally advisable to order an autopsy. This can provide both piece of mind so there are not lingering questions as to what happened, but also help doctors understand why complications occurred, and how they may be prevented.