More than 20% of patients misdiagnosed by primary care providers, Mayo Clinic study finds

Doctor with patient
More than 20% of patients who sought a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic were misdiagnosed by their primary care providers.

More than 20% of patients who sought a second opinion from specialists were misdiagnosed by primary care providers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that 21% of 286 patients who came to the general internal medicine division over a two-year period had their diagnosis from a primary care physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant completely changed, according to the study published today in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. In 66% of patients, there was a refined or redefined diagnosis and in only 12% of the cases did Mayo Clinic doctors confirm the original diagnosis.

“Effective and efficient treatment depends on the right diagnosis,” James Naessens, Sc.D., a healthcare policy researcher at the Mayo Clinic, who led the study, said in an announcement.

“Knowing that more than 1 out of every 5 referral patients may be completely [and] incorrectly diagnosed is troubling—not only because of the safety risks for these patients prior to correct diagnosis, but also because of the patients we assume are not being referred at all.”

Misdiagnoses can result in treatment delays and complications leading to more costly treatments, the study authors said. Providers who are not certain about a diagnosis should refer patients for a second opinion, Naessens said.

Diagnostic errors are an industry-wide problem, but organizations can take steps to prevent them, including collaboration with specialists and patient engagement. Diagnostic errors lead to more malpractice claims than any other type of medical error.