Diagnostic Errors and How To Avoid Them — A Critical Checklist for Patients

We have reported repeatedly on studies related to medical errors and infections that happen in hospitals. However, diagnostic errors (which often happen outside of the hospital in a doctor's office) have escaped the kind of tracking that other medical harms receive. Research from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, shows that "diagnostic errors — not surgical mistakes or medication overdoses — accounted for the largest fraction of claims, the most severe patient harm, and the highest total of penalty payouts." According to a press release announcing the study, "diagnostic errors could easily be the biggest patient safety and medical malpractice problem in the United States."

What is a diagnostic error?

A diagnostic error can be defined as a diagnosis that is missed, wrong or delayed, as detected by a subsequent definitive test or finding. The ensuing harm results from the delay or failure to treat a condition present when the working diagnosis was wrong or unknown, or from treatment provided for a condition not actually present.

“Overall, diagnostic errors have been under appreciated and under-recognized because they’re difficult to measure and keep track of owing to the frequent gap between the time the error occurs and when it’s detected,” said the study leader David Newman-Toker. “These are frequent problems that have played second fiddle to medical and surgical errors, which are evident more immediately.”

How can patients help to ensure they receive the right diagnosis?

The National Patient Safety Foundation has created a Checklist for Getting the Right Diagnosis with some tips for patients.

This 8-point checklist can be printed and taken with you when you meet with your doctor.

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