About 34% of medical malpractice claims over a 10-year period that resulted in permanent injury or death to a patient were caused by diagnostic errors, according to a new study.
The findings, published Thursday and conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, highlight the serious injuries that may result from diagnostic errors, among of the most common mistakes in medicine.
"It's not just inconvenient to have a wrong or delayed diagnosis. For many patients, misdiagnosis causes severe harm and expense, and in the worst cases, death," said Dr. David Newman-Toker, lead author of the study and director of the Center for Diagnostic Excellence at Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality, in a prepared statement.
The study was funded by the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, a not-for-profit organization focused on convening healthcare stakeholders to prevent diagnostic errors. The research was published in the society's peer-reviewed journal, Diagnosis.
The study found that of the 21,743 closed malpractice claims from 2006 to 2015 that caused severe harm, 7,379 were caused by diagnostic errors. Additionally, 21% of the total malpractice claims during the same period were the result of diagnostic errors. The malpractice claims data came from Controlled Risk Insurance Co. and represents 28.7% of all malpractice claims.
In addition to these findings, the researchers also analyzed the extent of harm caused by diagnostic errors for three diseases: cancer, vascular events and infection. The diseases were chosen because they are common and have a history of malpractice claims, said Paul Epner, CEO and co-founder of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine.
The three diseases accounted for 61.7% of all diagnostic error malpractice claims and 74.1% of those claims caused severe harm to the patient including death and permanent disability.
Epner said the disease-specific findings offer a path forward on where to focus improvement work. The science around prevention of diagnostic errors is still in its infancy. There is little research on the subject and best practices haven't been widely established. The Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine has a coalition of more than 50 healthcare organizations working together on coming up with standardized practices.
The study found a significant percentage of the diagnostic errors were the result of mistakes in clinical judgment, but Epner said it's wrong to blame doctors.
"The best solution to (preventing diagnostic errors) is redesigning the system because to err is human," he said.