Improving health care may depend on improving diagnoses

Although data about misdiagnoses is hard to come by, a new report says the problem is widespread.

Perhaps the most important phase of any person's health care treatment is the one that happens almost right at the beginning: their diagnosis. A missed or delayed diagnosis can have severe repercussions as it could mean valuable time is lost that could have been spent treating an actual health problem or the patient may be subject to treatments that are not only unnecessary but possibly harmful. According to PBS, a recent report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is bringing some much needed attention to the problem of misdiagnoses, a problem that the IOM claims is both little understood and a big impediment to improving overall health care.

A lack of information

A major issue with studying misdiagnoses is that there is very little data actually available to measure the extent of the problem. The report highlights that many missed and delayed diagnoses go unreported either because doctors never realize they have made a mistake or because patients fully recover from their misdiagnoses on their own without realizing that an error has been made.

Even when a misdiagnosis does not result in immediate patient harm, however, there can be much broader harm done to other patients and to the quality of overall health care. If doctors do not realize they have made a mistake in one instance, for example, then they are more likely to make that mistake again in the future. Repeating those same mistakes means that eventually a patient may suffer harm from a diagnostic error that could have been avoided through better awareness of the problem in the first place.

How big is the problem?

Despite the lack of information, the IOM did conclude that misdiagnoses are so widespread that most Americans will likely suffer from a diagnostic error at least once in their lives. That startling conclusion was based on a previous study that found that one in 20 outpatients suffer from a diagnostic error each year. Furthermore, according to U.S. News & World Report, chart reviews have found that missed or delayed diagnoses are responsible for close to 17 percent of all hospital adverse events.

When doctors get a diagnosis wrong, the harm that can be done to patients is often irreparable. In some cases, for example, a missed diagnosis will result in unnecessary treatment and tests that mean that the patient's actual health problem is not being addressed. In other cases, the treatment itself may cause harm, such as through unnecessary surgeries or through prescribed medicines that come with dangerous side effects.

Medical malpractice

Diagnostic errors are among the most common form of medical malpractice claims. For patients who have suffered from a misdiagnosis, it is important to reach out for help from an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Such an attorney can help injured patients pursue claims and inform them about what other legal options may be available to them.