Dr. Mark Garber told the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 17, 2013, that “diagnostic error is probably the biggest patient-safety issue we face in health care, and it is finally getting on the radar of the patient quality and safety movement.”
Garber, a fellow of the American College of Physicians, serves as the chief medical officer of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine. Despite the efforts of the society, experts convened by the National Academy of Medicine concluded that
Diagnostic errors—inaccurate or delayed diagnoses—persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients. It is likely that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences. Diagnostic errors may cause harm to patients by preventing or delaying appropriate treatment, providing unnecessary or harmful treatment, or resulting in psychological or financial repercussions.
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The Center for Diagnostic Excellence at Johns Hopkins University put an alarming number on the problem, noting on its website that “diagnostic errors … may account for 40,000 to 80,000 preventable deaths annually in U.S. hospitals.” The researchers also estimate that around 4 million Americans suffer harm from an incorrect or missed diagnosis each year.
As attorneys who advise and represent victims of misdiagnoses and other types of medical malpractice in North Carolina, we know of several serious cases that give names and faces to the epidemic of errors by doctors. A few of these include
- A Charlotte woman went to the doctor complaining of increasingly painful headaches received a migraine diagnosis when she actually had a rapidly growing malignant brain tumor.
- A Raleigh man’s doctor diagnosed an ear infection as the cause of sudden dizziness instead of the serious stroke the man had suffered.
- A woman spent months living without breast cancer treatment because a mix-up at the lab led her doctor to declare that the biopsy of a suspicious lump revealed no malignancy.
- A toddler missed years of appropriate education because his pediatrician identified developmental difficulties instead of deafness, which a simple hearing test would have revealed.
- A hysterectomy patient spent weeks in pain after her surgeon diagnosed a postoperative infection instead of noticing that a clamp was left inside the woman’s body.
Clearly, wrong and missed diagnoses occur for many reasons. All it takes to harm or kill a patient is misreading an X-ray or MRI, losing or switching records, failing to conduct appropriate tests, performing test incorrectly, or simply not connecting the dots between the symptoms a patient reports and what test results show. When evidence exists to show that a similarly trained and properly equipped doctor would not have made the same mistake, grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit exist.