How common are misdiagnoses? Nobody knows, study says

A study into diagnostic errors says they are very common, but frighteningly little understood.

Over the past 16 years the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has released a series of groundbreaking studies into shortcomings in the health care industry. Their first study, "To Err is Human," brought much needed attention to the problem of preventable medical errors. IOM's latest report, "Improving Diagnosis in Health Care," is now shining light on diagnostic errors and the harm they do to patients. However, as U.S. News & World Report notes, perhaps the most frightening conclusion reached by the study is just how little is still known about diagnostic errors.

Lack of studies

The report notes that coming up with a precise figure about how many people are actually misdiagnosed at health care facilities is impossible because the problem is underreported and little studied. As one of the researchers notes, the lack of information surrounding misdiagnoses is distressing because nobody knows "how often it occurs, how serious it is or how much it costs." The report refers to diagnostic errors as a massive "blind-spot" in patient safety.

Despite the lack of information, the report was able to come to a few disturbing conclusions about just how prevalent diagnostic errors are. For example, a previous study showed that five percent of adults in outpatient facilities are misdiagnosed each year, which would mean that the majority of Americans will suffer a delayed and misdiagnosis at some point in their lives. Reviews of patient charts also found that diagnostic errors were responsible for 17 percent of adverse events at hospitals.

Getting the diagnosis right

Diagnostic errors are such a serious problem not only because of their likely prevalence, but also because they set the stage for all subsequent care that a patient receives. If a diagnosis is wrong then a patient may receive treatment that is unnecessary or even harmful or he or she could be denied treatment that could otherwise prove lifesaving. Additionally, hospitals and doctors can only go so far in improving diagnostic accuracy if they don't know the extent of diagnostic errors in the first place.

Meanwhile, for patients the best thing they can do is to ask questions and to get a second opinion. As WCIA 3 News reports, one Illinois woman recently learned the value of a second opinion first hand. After her 8-month-old son started experiencing breathing and eating difficulties, he was initially diagnosed with croup, which is a common infection. After getting a second opinion at another health care facility, however, she found out that her son actually had a tumor that was making it difficult for him to breath. By getting that second diagnosis, the mother may have saved her young son's life.

Medical malpractice

Patients often put a great deal of trust in doctors and other medical practitioners. Unfortunately, doctors can and do make mistakes and those mistakes can result in serious harm to patients. A medical malpractice attorney can help those who may have been the victims of medical errors. By contacting an experienced attorney today, victims of alleged malpractice will be able to find out what legal options they may be able to pursue.