study explores misdiagnosis rate among primary care physicians

If you suddenly find yourself feeling unwell and unable to identify the reason why, there is a very good chance you will make an appointment to see your primary care physician as soon as possible. That’s because these physicians are specially trained to help identify and treat all types of medical conditions, making them the first line of defense in protecting your health.

However, a recently published study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that misdiagnoses in primary care are perhaps the most common of all medical mistakes, surpassing even medication mishaps and surgical errors. In fact, the researchers theorized that because these misdiagnosis are so common, they may be the single biggest contributor to patient injuries and fatalities.

“We have every reason to believe that diagnostic errors are a major, major public health problem,” said one researcher from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “You’re really talking about at least 150,000 people per year, deaths or disabilities that are resulting from this problem.”

The researchers examined 190 misdiagnoses made by primary care physicians working at one of two facilities. In each of these cases under study, the patients either ended up either admitted to the hospital, visiting the emergency room or returning to the office of the primary care physician within 14 days.

Further analysis by the researchers revealed:

  • Extremely serious medical conditions such as cancer, heart failure, kidney failure and pneumonia each accounted for between five and seven percent of the total misdiagnoses
  • The majority of the these misdiagnoses could have resulted in some type of harm to the patient; In particular, 36 could have resulted in serious permanent harm and 27 could have resulted in death

Shockingly, the researchers concluded that this problem could be traced largely to initial office visits where primary care physicians were failing to take a comprehensive patient history, conduct a full exam and/or order the necessary tests.

They also recommended that patients take the time to fully document everything about their illness (if possible), and ask their primary care physician specific questions.

This study is certainly discouraging and more than a bit horrifying since so many of us have cultivated a certain level of trust with our primary care physician. Here’s hoping they devote the necessary time to making sure we remain healthy.

Source: Reuters, “Missed diagnosis common in doctor’s office,” Genevra Pittman, Feb. 26, 2013

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