First appeared in MedPage Today
By Aron Solomon
According to a recent report from the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute Center for Diagnostic Excellence, 795,000 Americans a year die or are permanently disabled after being misdiagnosed (371,000 patients die and 424,000 are permanently disabled). While previous estimates of annual incorrect diagnoses and their impact on people’s lives have tended to vary widely, this new research provides a more clear picture of the burden of misdiagnosis.
But there is little comfort in the report’s staggering numbers. While it is frightening to think that so many people suffer because of medical errors, it’s not all that surprising that this is happening.
Here are a few reasons (which you may already be intimately familiar with) why these numbers shouldn’t surprise us.
The Complexity of Medicine
It’s an understatement to say that medicine is a complex field, and doctors are faced with an enormous amount of information to process each day. Doctors must fully consider a patient’s medical history, symptoms, test results, and other factors when making a diagnosis. With so much information to consider, it’s unsurprising that mistakes can and do happen.
When I spoke with Florida medical malpractice lawyer Greg Yaffa, JD, it was clear he recognized the complexities of medicine and the things that can go wrong when doctors deviate from the standard of care. “Part of being a medical doctor is understanding the nuances and impact of differing conditions and recognizing the right protocol to follow when those conditions present in their patients.”
Doctors are often under pressure to see an overwhelming number of patients in a limited amount of time. This can lead to rushed diagnoses and missed details. There are no easy answers to limited time, but it’s important to understand that this crunch is often a catalyst for mistakes.
Lack of Communication
This issue isn’t discussed anywhere near enough. Just as miscommunication between pilots and other crew members and air traffic control is a catalyst for airline disasters, where there is a breakdown in communication between doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, things go wrong fast. If a doctor fails to communicate important information to a specialist, the specialist may diagnose based on incomplete information, and things can spiral from there.
Yaffa added, “The consequences of miscommunication among medical professionals can be catastrophic, leading to misdiagnosis, medication errors, and preventable complications. In my experience, I have witnessed firsthand how the breakdown of vital information exchange can have devastating effects on patients’ lives. Bridging the communication gap isn’t just a matter of professional responsibility; it’s an imperative that safeguards trust, accountability, and ultimately, the well-being of those seeking medical care.”
Diagnostic Errors in Emergency Rooms
Another report highlighted the reality of emergency rooms being particularly prone to diagnostic errors, with hundreds of thousands dying each year due to misdiagnosis. The top five conditions that are often misdiagnosed in emergency rooms are stroke, heart attack, aortic aneurysm/dissection, spinal cord compression/injury, and venous thromboembolism.
Doctors Are Just People
When we look holistically at all the moving parts of any medical procedure in a hospital, it’s unsurprising that things go wrong — there are so many opportunities for human error. We can’t change the fact that people, including doctors, are imperfect. People being people can contribute to catastrophic errors. It’s just not something that, in the immediate future, will be taken out of the equation.
The good news is that steps can be built into the process to reduce the incidence of misdiagnosis. Doctors can be given more time to see patients, communication between healthcare professionals can be improved, and technology can be used to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses.
Having seen many different malpractice scenarios over the years, Yaffa suggests three steps that every physician should take as a matter of course to reduce their medical malpractice risk exposure:
- Maintain accurate medical records: Make sure medical records are properly documented by all treating providers, and whenever possible, update records in real-time to avoid mistakes such as medication errors and misdiagnosis.
- Take more time with patients before and after care: In an ideal world, doctors would have virtually unlimited time to hear and fully address patient concerns. The more heard a patient feels and the stronger the doctor-patient relationship, the better. While time is always a challenge, remember to use your time wisely to listen to patients and make them feel as though you’ve gone above and beyond to provide quality care.
- Conduct better follow-up: It’s important for physicians to continue engaging with their patients even after they’ve been discharged from the medical facility. This practice helps ensure that issues are caught and resolved quickly. The earlier doctors identify issues before and after discharge, the lower the likelihood of malpractice occurrences.
Misdiagnosis stories will never leave our collective news cycles, but sometimes one extra, particularly diligent, step is the difference between our actions or inactions becoming a statistic.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.