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Diagnostic mistakes most common form of malpractice

When people think of medical malpractice, many conjure up visions of surgeons leaving foreign objects inside patients or operating on the wrong part of the body. However, a study published online April 22, 2013 in BMJ Quality & Safety revealed that the most common errors that physicians make that lead to patient harm are diagnostic errors.

Diagnostic errors responsible for most malpractice payouts

The study's authors examined 25 years' worth of malpractice claims in the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal government database of malpractice payouts that health care providers made for court judgments or settlements of lawsuits. Researchers found that diagnostic errors made up the highest proportion of medical malpractice lawsuit payments, totaling 35.2 percent of all malpractice payments from 1986 through 2010. Researchers calculated that the total amount that clinicians had paid in malpractice payments for diagnostic errors, adjusted for inflation, was $38.8 billion, with the average payout being about $387,000.

Other leading causes of malpractice suit payments were injuries related to treatment at 27.2 percent, surgery errors at 24.2 percent, obstetrical errors at 6.5 percent, medication errors at 5.3 percent and anesthesia errors at 3 percent. Researchers also found that diagnostic errors led to patient death in 49 percent of the cases, compared with a fatality rate of 23.9 in other types of malpractice claims.

Researchers also analyzed the different types of diagnostic errors that lead to malpractice payouts. The most common type of diagnostic error was failure to diagnose, making up 54.2 percent of the diagnostic error payouts. The second most common diagnostic error was delay in diagnosis at 19.9 percent, followed by wrong diagnosis at 9.9 percent.

Difficulties with diagnosis errors

Researchers noted that one of the reasons that diagnostic errors were so prevalent among malpractice claims is that they are not as immediately obvious as a surgical error. Patients may experience delays of months before getting the correct diagnosis, either from a different practitioner or when the initial diagnosing physician corrects the error.

The study's authors argued that diagnostic errors should receive as much attention from quality-improvement specialists that other errors such as surgery errors and other hospital mistakes are receiving. The authors claim that merely conducting more tests in not the answer - too many physicians already practice "defensive medicine," according to the researchers, and subject patients to a battery of tests in an effort to avoid a lawsuit. Instead, the authors suggest making sure that physicians are conducting correct tests and focusing on problems that often lead to the most patient harm, such as cancer, infections and vascular events.

Speak with an attorney

Patients rely on the skill and wisdom of their physicians to diagnose what is wrong when they are ill. When physicians fail to meet their responsibilities, patients suffer. If you have been harmed by a diagnostic error, talk to a medical malpractice lawyer with broad experience handling these complicated cases.

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