In reviewing 25 years of U.S. malpractice claim payouts, Johns Hopkins researchers found that diagnostic errors—not surgical mistakes or medication overdoses—accounted for the largest fraction of claims, the most severe patient harm, and the highest total of penalty payouts. Diagnosis-related payments amounted to $38.8 billion between 1986 and 2010, they found.
"This is more evidence that diagnostic errors could easily be the biggest patient safety and medical malpractice problem in the United States," says David E. Newman-Toker, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study published online in BMJ Quality and Safety. "There's a lot more harm associated with diagnostic errors than we imagined."
While the new study looked only at a subset of claims—those that rose to the level of a malpractice payout—researchers estimate the number of patients suffering misdiagnosis-related, potentially preventable, significant permanent injury or death annually in the United States ranges from 80,000 to 160,000.
Diagnostic error can be defined as a diagnosis that is missed, wrong or delayed, as detected by some subsequent definitive test or finding. The ensuing harm results from the delay or failure to treat a condition present when the working diagnosis was wrong or unknown, or from treatment provided for a condition not actually present. "Overall, diagnostic errors have been underappreciated and under-recognized because they're difficult to measure and keep track of owing to the frequent gap between the time the error occurs and when it's detected," Newman-Toker says. "These are frequent problems that have played second fiddle to medical and surgical errors, which are evident more immediately."
He says experts have often downplayed the scope of diagnostic errors not because they were unaware of the problem, but "because they were afraid to open up a can of worms they couldn't close." He adds: "Progress has been made confronting other types of patient harm, but there's probably not going to be a magic-bullet solution for diagnostic errors because they are more complex and diverse than other patient safety issues. We're going to need a lot more people focusing their efforts on this issue if we're going to successfully tackle it."
For their review, Newman-Toker and his colleagues analyzed medical malpractice payments data from the National Practitioner Data Bank, an electronic repository of all payments made on behalf of practitioners in the United States for malpractice settlements or judgments since 1986.