Over 40 years ago, our family owned a 1975 Ford Granada that was very temperamental, dying at stoplights and stop signs for no particular reason. Much too often, we would take the car to the local Ford dealership, only to learn the cause of this problem could not be correctly diagnosed. Other than trading in the vehicle for a more reliable model, it seemed that running stop lights would be our only other viable option!
Since the release of our Silently Harmed white papers, one particular section has brought a great deal of intrigue and discussion from many people who have reviewed this paper and provided feedback. The section, ‘National Data on Common Adverse Events,’ addresses seven common adverse events found within our hospitals. Not mentioned within the seven, is misdiagnosis events, which are also very common – and harmful.
Indeed, according to the journal BMJ Quality and Safety, at least one in every 20 adults (about 5 percent) who seeks medical care in a U.S. emergency room or community health clinic, may walk away with the wrong diagnosis. The analysis estimates that 12 million Americans a year could be affected by such errors.
Of those mistakes, about half – or 6 million – could potentially cause harm, according to patient safety expert Dr. Hardeep Singh, who is the first to provide robust population-level data on the impact of the problem in outpatient settings. Patients with conditions as varied as heart failure, pneumonia, anemia and lung cancer could have serious problems that remain unrecognized by a doctor.
Other safety experts laud this finding as ‘hard evidence’ about the frequency of such mistakes. Some even argue that 5 percent is the minimum because these numbers overlook other error activity.
In 1997, the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) commissioned a phone survey reviewing patient opinions about medical mistakes. Of the people reporting a medical mistake (42%), 40% reported a “misdiagnosis or treatment error,” but respondents did not separate misdiagnosis from treatment errors. Respondents also reported that their doctor failed to make an adequate diagnosis in 9% of cases, and 8% of people cited misdiagnosis as a primary causal factor in the medical mistake. Loosely interpreting these facts gives a misdiagnosis range of 8% to 42%.
The reasons why outpatient doctors misdiagnose patients can vary widely. Time with patients is more limited than ever and their symptoms are often complex and evaluated in what is described as “a fairly chaotic outpatient environment.” Many doctors lack the support and technical help that could free them to use consistent clinical reasoning. Adding more people to insurance coverage, a premise of the Affordable Care Act, can also stress the care delivery infrastructure, perhaps compounding an already fragile environment.
Just as Silently Harmed has attempted to grasp the number of hospital medical errors within each of the seven midwestern states, putting a population-level number on outpatient diagnostic errors can be a step toward generating greater awareness and resources to address the problem.
For patients, this important analysis should be a reminder that the doctor is not always right. Patients can play a key role in their own care by offering doctors a complete list of symptoms and a full-health history at the first visit. After the exam, they should be proactive about following up.
Unlike owning and operating a defective automobile, receiving a correct medical diagnosis from our trusted provider is critical to our physical and mental wellbeing. When it comes to our health, trade-ins are not optional.
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