Erroneous medical diagnosis can result in patient injuries and deaths

The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, an agency dedicated to improving health care quality, notes that "sometimes bad things happen because of negligence or intentionally unsafe acts." Sometimes, one of the "bad things" that can happen is an error related to a patient's medical diagnosis. A missed, erroneous or delayed diagnosis frequently results in injury to patients. A study by Johns Hopkins University concluded that nearly 29 percent of successful medical malpractice claims involved a diagnostic error.

Errors in diagnosis can occur in a variety of health-care settings. According to the Advisory Board, a health-care consulting firm, 25 percent of intensive care unit deaths occur due to missed diagnosis. Vascular maladies and infections accounted for more than 75 percent of all missed ICU diagnostic errors. The most-common missed conditions are fungal infections, myocardial infarctions, pneumonia and pulmonary embolisms. In addition to deaths, missed diagnosis in the ICU appears to have caused unnecessary surgical procedures, longer lengths of stay and a reduced quality of life.

Primary care physicians, according to the Advisory Board, miss a wide array of common diagnosis including:

  • Cancer
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Pneumonia
  • Urinary tract or kidney infection

Many of the diagnosis missed by primary care physicians did or could have resulted in moderate-to-severe harm in patients.

Emergency room and health-clinic care also poses diagnostic error risks. According to an NBC News report, at least 5 percent of adults seeking medical care in emergency rooms or health clinics may walk away with the wrong diagnosis. A new study estimates that 12 million Americans a year could be impacted by such errors. According to one safety expert, of those 12 million diagnostic mistakes, approximately 6 million could cause genuine and substantial harm to the patient. The study finds that "patients with conditions as varied as heart failure, pneumonia, anemia, and lung cancer" could have serious conditions undiagnosed.

Safety Tips

The Patient Safety Authority says that patients must be proactive in helping physicians reach a proper diagnosis. To help avoid diagnostic errors you are advised to take the following steps:

  • Tell your doctor your complete medical story since even minor facts could be important in reaching a correct diagnosis.
  • Give a physician the chronological order of your symptoms and complaints.
  • Keep records of all test results and any other data the next doctor may need in order to be fully apprised of your condition.
  • Do not minimize complaints as the doctor may follow your lead and do the same.
  • Give the doctor a list of all your medications.
  • If possible put your symptoms in writing.
  • Bring a companion to help you take in what the doctor is telling you.

Perhaps most importantly, find a doctor who will actually listen to you. If you think the doctor is overlooking something, do not be afraid to tell the doctor what you think. Finally, never be afraid to ask as many questions as possible.

Suing for diagnostic errors

Physicians owe a duty of due care to patients. A doctor's negligence in missing what is wrong with a patient frequently results in injury or death to the patient. If you suspect that you or a loved one has been the victim of medical malpractice caused by an erroneous or missed diagnosis, you should contact an attorney experienced in handling medical malpractice actions. The attorney can advise you on your options for seeking compensation under Pennsylvania law for any resulting injuries.