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Medical misdiagnosis: A common and serious problem in the U.S.

The first crucial step in solving any problem is to correctly identify what that problem actually is. In medicine, for instance, a patient cannot be correctly treated until the doctor examines him and comes up with the correct diagnosis to explain his symptoms. An incorrect diagnosis could not only lead to an incorrect course of treatment, it could also allow the patient's condition to worsen.

This idea is so simple and straightforward that we often take it for granted. Unfortunately, however, misdiagnosis occurs far more often than most people realize. According to a recent study, approximately 12 million adults are misdiagnosed each year in outpatient settings alone. Of these incidents, nearly half could lead to serious harm or even death.

The study's results were recently published in the British medical journal "BMJ Quality & Safety," but the research was based in the United States and focused on U.S. data. Researchers used data from three previous studies in order to estimate how often misdiagnosis occurs in outpatient settings including doctors' offices and clinics. The results showed that one in every 20 patients is misdiagnosed on an annual basis.

Not every misdiagnosis will lead to serious patient harm. But when doctors either misdiagnose or fail to diagnose a serious medical condition, precious time is lost - time that could mean the difference between life and death.

When a patient is experiencing chest pains, for instance, a doctor may dismiss the symptoms as mere indigestion and send the patient home. If those symptoms were the early warning signs of a heart attack, however, the misdiagnosis could prove fatal.

Failure to diagnose cancer is another serious error that could cause significant patient harm or even death. The more delayed a cancer diagnosis is, the more time the disease has to progress. Certain types of cancer may be untreatable in later stages, which is why early detection is critical.

First and foremost, we rely on doctors to be expert diagnosticians. When negligence or carelessness leads to a diagnostic error, the consequences can be devastating. If you or a loved one has suffered serious consequences as a result of misdiagnosis, please share your concerns with an experienced medical malpractice attorney.

Source: Reuters, "About 12 million U.S. outpatients misdiagnosed annually: study," Curtis Skinner, April 17, 2014

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