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Misdiagnosis study identifies three major categories of concern

A group of researchers, led by experts with Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality, found three major disease categories are responsible for the majority of diagnostic errors. The group hopes that education about these categories will reduce the rate of diagnostic errors.

How serious are diagnostic errors?

In short, very serious. Diagnostic errors account for approximately 100,000 fatalities or permanent disabilities in patients on an annual basis.

How reliable is the study?

In addition to the connection to Johns Hopkins, the study also used a large sample size. Researchers reviewed 11,592 diagnostic error cases from throughout the United States. These cases were pulled from the Comparative Benchmarking System database, owned and maintained by a medical malpractice insurance programs with connections to Harvard medical institutions.

What are the three major disease categories?

The results of the study found the most common categories responsible for the most serious complications include misdiagnosed:

  • Cancer. Researchers found misdiagnosed cancers were responsible for 37.8% of all diagnostic errors that led to permanent disability or death of the patient. The study also notes the most common form of cancer that is misdiagnosed is lung cancer. Other common examples include breast, colorectal, prostate and skin cancers.
  • Vascular events. This category accounts for 22.8% of serious complications. The most common within this category: strokes. Other common examples include heart attacks, venous thromboembolism, aortic aneurysms and dissections.
  • Infections. The team of medical professionals and scientists found 13.5% of serious complications were the result of infections. Sepsis, a serious blood infection, was the most common example.

Missed infections and vascular events were most likely to occur in ambulatory settings, like emergency departments. Cancer misdiagnosis was most likely to occur in outpatient clinics.

What was the purpose of this study?

As noted above, the research team hopes to reduce the rate of misdiagnosis and error through education. The team further encourages physicians to take the National Academy of Medicine's 2015 call to action to improve diagnosis seriously. A failure to do so can result in serious injury and potential lawsuits.

This is only the first phase of the research project. The next steps include information about frequency of misdiagnosis and a more accurate estimate of these errors. We will provide updates on these efforts as they become available.

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