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Study shows diagnostic errors top reason for med mal claims

A recent study, published by the British Medical Journal, examined medical malpractice claims from the National Practitioner Data Bank-an online repository of payments made from medical malpractice settlements or judgments-compiled from the previous 25 years. The data revealed that most successful medical malpractice claims stemmed from diagnostic errors.

The findings of the study

Researchers examined 350,000 payments made for medical malpractice allegations during the period of 1986-2010. They organized the claims into six main categories:

  • Diagnostic errors
  • Treatment errors
  • Surgical mistakes
  • Obstetrical mishaps
  • Medication missteps
  • Anesthesia errors

Out of all claims, approximately 27 percent were due to diagnostic errors that included missed, delay, or incorrect diagnosis (versus 3 percent of all claims from anesthesia problems).

A few examples of incorrect diagnoses included an instance of an ectopic pregnancy mistaken for appendicitis and an aortic dissection mistaken for heartburn.

Over 40 percent of the total medical malpractice claims that resulted in patient deaths were due to diagnostic errors. Roughly 10-20 percent of all deaths were specifically due to missed diagnosis of a patient's condition while alive.

Additionally, the information revealed that payouts from medical diagnostic errors were on average $389,000.

Lack of attention potential reason behind the results

Unfortunately, researchers didn't reveal the reasons why diagnostic errors were the leading cause of medical malpractice payouts.

However, David E. Newman-Toker, lead researcher and neurologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that the reason could be due to the fact that diagnosis is difficult and harder to capture, particularly when there's limited time available. "Diagnostic errors are the most common, the most costly and the most deadly of all medical errors," he says.

This conclusion seems to be accurate. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (a peer-review journal for medical practitioners) revealed that more and more primary care physicians are taking on new patients and reducing initial office visit times. As a result, misdiagnosis is occurring due to the lack of sufficient time to devote to see each patient.

Although there remains no concrete solution, Dr. Newman-Toker, argues that more diagnostic testing isn't necessarily the answer. Additional time to devote to each patient to really get to the bottom of their issues or symptoms may be a good start to reducing missed or incorrect medical diagnoses.