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The Most Common Reason Behind Medical Malpractice Lawsuits is Mistake in Diagnosis

According to a recent article in The New York Times, citing a study published online by BMJ Quality & Safety on April 22, 2013, most medical malpractice settlements and damage awards were the result of diagnostic mistakes. In fact, the study, which was compiled using the National Practitioner Data Bank, found that among the 350,706 paid malpractice claims analyzed from 1986 to 2010, diagnostic errors appeared to be the most common, most costly, and most dangerous types of medical mistakes.

More specifically, the report found that diagnostic errors were the leading type of paid medical malpractice claims (28.6%), and accounted for the highest proposition of total payments at 35.2%. Additionally, diagnostic errors accounted for 33.8% of the disabilities and almost 40% of the deaths that resulted in medical malpractice payments. Notably, more diagnostic errors were outpatient than inpatient (68.8% vs. 31.2%). However, inpatient diagnostic errors were more likely to be lethal (48.4% vs. 36.9%).

After diagnostic errors, treatment errors and surgical mistakes accounted for the second and third highest reasons for payouts. All other errors combined, including birth injuries and other obstetrical errors, medication mistakes, monitoring mistakes and anesthesia mistakes, accounted for only 20% of payouts total.

Moreover, a study of 190 errors at a VA hospital system in Texas found that, while many diagnostic errors involved common diseases such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections, 87% of these errors had the potential for “considerable to severe harm”, including “inevitable death.” A commentary on the Texas VA study revealed that misdiagnosis is not limited to hospitals. The commentary estimates that “with more than half a billion primary care visits annually in the United States . . .at least 500,000 missed diagnostic opportunities occur each year at U.S. primary care visits, more resulting in considerable harm.”

Dr. David E. Newman-Toker, a senior author of the study and an associate professor of neurology at John Hopkins, stated, “this is a major health problem”, and “physicians, hospitals, and insurers all need to contribute to fixing it.” Indeed, problems with misdiagnosis are not a new problem. In 1991, the Harvard Medical Practice Study found that misdiagnosis accounted for 14% of adverse events and that 75% of these errors involved negligence such as failure by doctors to merely follow up on test results. Furthermore, a 2009 report funded by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that 28% of 583 diagnostic mistakes reported by doctors were life threatening or had resulted in death of permanent disability.

Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of misdiagnoses, these mistakes are often largely ignored. Dr. Newman-Toker points out that there is no institute that views it as their problem. At the same time, according to a recent article in The Washington Post, the problem is that there is no easy fix for diagnostic errors. Internist Mark L. Graber, founding president of Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, said there “is probably nothing more cognitively complicated” than a diagnosis.

While diagnostic errors are a leading cause of malpractice litigation, the vast majority do not result in legal action. If you believe that you or a loved one has been injured as the result of improper or delayed medical treatment, you may have a legitimate claim against your healthcare provider. Contact the San Antonio medical malpractice attorneys at Carabin Shaw today at 1-800-862-1260.


Why Doctors Are Sued, by Nicholas Bakalar, The New York Times

Misdiagnosis is more common than drug errors or wrong-site surgery, by Sandra G. Boodman, The Washington Post

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