The Cost of Diagnostic Errors

A new study has found that diagnostic errors are the single largest source of successful malpractice claims. Furthermore, the study concludes that diagnostic errors have the unfortunate distinction of being the most dangerous, costly and common type of medical mistake.

Study Finds High Costs

The study encompassed malpractice reports from a 25 year period, between 1986 and 2010. Researchers made use of data from the National Practitioner Data Bank. They analyzed 350,706 paid malpractice claims in order to ascertain the specific cause of patient allegations.

According to the study’s findings, diagnostic errors were the cause of 28.6 percent of all malpractice claims between 1986 and 2010. Furthermore, paid claims resulting from diagnostic errors represented the largest portion of malpractice claims from a financial standpoint. Diagnostic errors accounted for $38.8 billion in malpractice payments between 1986 and 2010, representing 35.2 percent of all medical malpractice compensation over this period.

Diagnostic Errors and Mortality Rate

A second worrisome finding from this study concerned the link between diagnostic errors and accidental death. As a whole, malpractice allegations were linked with patient mortality in 23.9 percent of cases. However, in the specific instance of malpractice allegations stemming from diagnostic errors, death as a result of malpractice was linked in 40.9 percent of cases.

The Difficulties of Diagnostic Errors

Although this study serves as a reminder of the dangers that can accompany a diagnostic error, it also shines light on the difficulty that accompanies addressing diagnostic errors. Within the scope of this study, both surgical errors and treatment errors also represented a large portion of malpractice claims. However, the study’s authors posited that these types of malpractice issues were more easily addressed due to the greater degree of immediacy accompanying an error. While the results of an unsuccessful surgery may be quickly apparent, incorrectly diagnosing a serious condition as something relatively innocuous is often slower to cause harm.

Due to the significant burden that diagnostic errors place on both the health of patients and the livelihood of health professionals, the authors of this study call for an increased focus on diagnostic errors as a critical health policy issue.