The term “medical malpractice” often conjures up images of a surgeon making a grievous mistake, such as operating on the wrong part of the body or leaving a scalpel inside a patient. However, surgery errors actually aren’t the most common reason for medical malpractice lawsuits—diagnostic errors are.
In 2013, researchers at Johns Hopkins reviewed 25 years of medical malpractice claims to find that diagnostic errors ranked ahead of surgery errors and medication overdoses in terms of the number of claims, severity of patient harm, and highest claim payouts. The total payment of medical malpractice claims in that 25 year period was $38.8 billion for diagnostic errors alone.
- 61% of pediatric claims
- 34% of hospital medical claims
- 58% of emergency medical claims
- 40% of internal medicine claims
- 33% of overall medical malpractice claims
Common Types of Diagnostic Errors
There are three general categories of diagnostic errors: diagnoses that were wrong, delayed, or missed altogether. In all of these cases, a doctor’s error can lead to a patient receiving the wrong course of treatment, receiving the correct treatment too late, or receiving no treatment at all. A patient’s condition may become worse due to these treatment errors, and in some cases they may even lead to his or her death.
Doctors cannot be held liable for all diagnostic errors, as there are some that they may not have been able to reasonably prevent based on the information available to them. However, doctors can be held liable if they failed to provide treatment in a reasonably skillful and competent manner and if their negligence directly caused a patient to suffer an injury or experience a worsened condition.
Why Do Diagnostic Errors Occur?
There are numerous reasons that diagnostic errors can occur, but The Doctors Company suggests that these errors aren’t typically based on a physician’s lack of medical knowledge. It’s much more common for these errors to occur due to a human error, such as a doctor being overly tired, experiencing a positive bias (seeing something just because they expect it to be there), or being distracted. Additionally, an error may occur because a doctor fails to follow diagnostic protocol or order the appropriate diagnostic tests.
In some cases, diagnostic errors stem from system-related issues, such as a failure in communication between health care providers or a design flaw in electronic health care records that leaves a doctor with incorrect or incomplete information about a patient’s medical history.
Why Don’t We Hear More about Diagnostic Errors?
Diagnostic errors often aren’t as attention-grabbing as other types of medical malpractice, yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that they are some of the most common, serious, and costly errors. Dr. David E. Newman-Toker, one of the researchers involved in the Johns Hopkins analysis, says that this is largely because diagnostic errors are difficult to measure; there is usually a gap between the time of the error and the time it is detected because a patient may not immediately show signs of a worsening condition. In addition, he believes that in the past, experts underemphasized the scope of diagnosis-related medical malpractice cases “because they were afraid to open up a can of worms they couldn’t close.” Diagnostic errors are incredibly complex, and while diagnostic protocols can help, there’s no sure-fire solution to completely eliminate these errors.
What Should You Do If Your Doctor Makes a Diagnostic Error?
As mentioned previously, not every diagnostic error is indicative of a negligent doctor. However, if your doctor gave you a misdiagnosis, delayed your diagnosis, or failed to diagnose a medical condition and you suffered an injury or worsening condition as a result, it’s important to ask whether or not a reasonable doctor in the same position would have made that same mistake. A medical malpractice attorney can help you look closely at the details of your case and determine whether your doctor may be liable.
If you do determine that your doctor was negligent, you may be able to recover compensation for your injuries through a verdict or a settlement. Not only will this help you cover your medical expenses and additional costs related to recovery, it will draw attention to the underappreciated issue of diagnostic errors in the health care industry. Bringing this issue into the light is the best way to push for better protocols and training and to prevent a similar error from occurring in the future.
About the Author:
Ben Murphey is a personal injury lawyer and a partner at the firm of Lawlor Winston White & Murphey. Mr. Murphey has 10.0 Superb AVVO rating, was named Top 1% of Car Accident Attorneys by Car Accident Lawyer, and was named a Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers in 2014. Mr. Murphey is based in South Florida but represents people and businesses across the state who have been harmed by the wrongful acts of others.