One of six preventable medical errors are due to a misdiagnosis. Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore conducted research into which medical malpractice claims are awarded the largest sums in payouts, according to an article in Claims Journal. The payouts study was published in the Journal for Healthcare Quality, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Association for Healthcare Quality. The article goes on to say that the study used data between 2004 and 2010, and assessed only claims that are considered “catastrophic,” defined as payouts of $1 million or more.

The focus of the article was on payouts. The medical industry could worry less about payouts if their focus was on preventing malpractice. Instead, their emphasis remains profit over patients.

Why diagnostic errors are common

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality believes that diagnostic errors occur because of heuristics – informal “rules of thumb” based on the commonality of a person’s symptoms being associated with specific types of illnesses or injuries. Essentially, these errors are caused by biases on behalf of the doctors: a woman present with strep-like symptoms, therefore it must be strep and not something else.

The Agency defines four common heuristics for doctors:

  • Availability, where a doctor uses his/her past experiences to inform a current case
  • Anchoring, where only the initial information is taken into consideration, and new information is ignored
  • Framing, where a doctor uses “subtle clues” and “collateral information” as opposed to necessary testing
  • Blind obedience, where only the test is considered correct, and no additional data collection is done

By relying on these rules of thumb, doctors run the risk of misdiagnosing a patient’s symptoms, leading to preventable errors. A Harvard Medical Practice study tells us that perhaps 17% of preventable errors are caused by incorrect diagnoses. Preventing medical errors should be the goal. It starts with the diagnosis. If doctors can get the diagnosis right, it follows that the patient has a much better chance at getting well.

For more information about medical malpractice and diagnostic errors, please visit Plaxen & Adler, P.A.