Diagnostic errors: Most costly, common malpractice claim

Diagnostic errors are the leading cause of successful medical malpractice claims, and are the most common, most costly and most dangerous of medical mistakes, according to new research published in BMJ Quality & Safety.

Researchers analyzed 350,706 paid claims from the National Practitioner Data Bank from 1986 to 2010 and found diagnostic errors represented 28.6 percent of the claims and accounted for the highest proportion of total payments--35.2 percent or $38.8 billion.

Moreover, diagnostic errors resulted in death more than other allegation groups--40.9 percent versus 23.9 percent.

As The Washington Post points out, a few examples of serious diagnostic errors include mistaking an ectopic pregnancy for appendicitis, an aortic dissection for severe heartburn or a brainstem stroke for dizziness.

"Progress has been made confronting other types of patient harm, but there's probably not going to be a magic-bullet solution for diagnostic errors because they are more complex and diverse than other patient safety issues,"  study leader David E. Newman-Toker, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement. "We're going to need a lot more people focusing their efforts on this issue if we're going to successfully tackle it."

Toker also said diagnostic errors are under-recognized because they're not easy to measure or keep track of, due to the frequent pause between the time the error occurs and when it's detected.

"We found roughly equal numbers of lethal and non-lethal errors in our analysis, suggesting that the public health burden of diagnostic errors could be twice that previously estimated," the study concluded. "Healthcare stakeholders should consider diagnostic safety a critical health policy issue."

To learn more:
- read the study abstract
- read the announcement
- read the Washington Post article

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