Too Many Deaths Caused by Diagnosis Failures

When a loved one dies, the instant reaction is to ask why. The pain of losing a spouse or other family member can at least be softened by knowing exactly what caused the death, and that everything possible was done to diagnose and treat the person before he or she died. But too often there lies a mystery. The sad truth is that throughout Connecticut and other states, doctors and other medical professionals aren’t always able to pinpoint the reason a patient suffered a fatal or debilitating medical problem.

A recent study pointed out the prevalence of instances in which doctors failed to diagnose a condition that led to a patient’s death or disability. Such failures make up nearly one-third of all successful medical malpractice cases over the past 25 years.

The study’s researchers used a federal government database that acts as a clearinghouse of information on malpractice claims and other reports of adverse actions taken by health care professionals nationwide. Of all the reported deaths related to medical malpractice, a failure to properly diagnose a medical condition caused 39 percent of them. An estimate published in the Journal of the American Medical Association attributed a startling 40,000 to 80,000 deaths each year to improper diagnoses.

Why are fatal wrong diagnoses so common compared to other malpractice-related deaths, such as medication, treatment or surgical errors? There are no easy answers, say the researchers. One reason may be that it can take longer for doctors or patients to notice errors in a diagnosis than a surgical mistake. Too often the misdiagnosis doesn’t become clear until the error shows up in an autopsy report.

The solution to the problem isn’t very cut-and-dry, either. Yes, more testing may help in some cases. But as one of the researchers pointed out, a patient who seeks medical help for dizziness may get a CT scan that reveals nothing about the cause.

Fortunately, the problem is not wholly without recourse. Many times a misdiagnosis arises because a doctor fails to address reported symptoms or doesn’t take a comprehensive look at the patient’s medical history, for example. If you’ve lost a loved one or suffered a disabling condition after receiving an improper diagnosis, it may be worth consulting a medical malpractice attorney who can examine your case and determine whether your doctor was negligent in his or her diagnosis.

Source: The Washington Post, “Diagnostic errors are leading cause of successful malpractice claims,” David Brown, April 22, 2013