The most common outcomes of an error in diagnosing an illness, disease or cancer by a treating physician is death and permanent disability, according to a recent study published in BMJ Quality & Safety. Errors in diagnosis include misdiagnosis, a complete failure to diagnose and a delay in diagnosis and are "the most frequent, most severe and most costly" of all medical mistakes.
The study evaluated 25 years of medical malpractice payments reported to the National Practitioner Databank. Although a diagnostic error may be less obvious than a wrong-site surgery or a surgical tool being left inside the body, they are far more likely to seriously, even fatally, affect patients. Approximately $38.8 billion was paid out for doctor's mental medical mistakes that resulted in diagnostic errors in the years studied.
Just as a diagnostic error may be difficult to spot, it may be difficult to prevent. Reaching a correct diagnosis relies squarely on the knowledge and skill of the treating physician in asking the right questions, ordering the right tests and analyzing all available data. Despite the assertion that doctors are practicing defensive medicine, ordering unnecessary tests to rule out diseases so that they aren't sued for malpractice, diagnosis errors are the number one reason for payouts in med mal cases.
The study suggests that doctors and patients would be better served if medical professionals focused on improving their own diagnostic skills related to serious, life-threatening events or illnesses. That includes focusing on correctly diagnosing heart attacks, infections and cancer.
Source: Medscape, "Diagnostic Errors Dominate Malpractice Payouts," April 23, 2013