Report highlights growing problem of diagnostic errors

A recently released report by the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Science, indicates that while many of the patient safety initiatives undertaken here in the U.S. focus on issues like surgical errors, medication mistakes and other types of harm in hospital settings, there is at least one major medical danger that is still going largely unnoticed and unaddressed: incorrect or late diagnoses.

In fact, the report determined that the majority of patients across the U.S. will be on the receiving end of either diagnostic error at least once in their lives after visiting a doctor’s office or other outpatient facility, and cited at least one estimate showing that these diagnostic errors affect roughly 12 million adult patients every year.

While these figures are certainly alarming, it is perhaps the dearth of more concrete numbers that is even more alarming.

Indeed, the researchers found that it’s virtually impossible to determine the actual number of incorrect or late diagnoses given the lack of otherwise reliable measures, and the fact that they only really come to light after the fact, thanks to things like autopsies and medical malpractice lawsuits.

“Despite the pervasiveness of diagnostic error and the risk for patient harm, they have been largely unappreciated within the quality safety movement in health care, and this cannot and must not continue,” said the president of the IOM.

Even though the report was unable to take a more quantitative approach, it did predict that absent the necessary safety interventions, the problem of incorrect or late diagnoses will likely get worse in the coming years given that the provision of health care is going to become increasingly complex.

We’ll continue this discussion in our next post, examining what the report had to say concerning how diagnostic errors occur and what can be done to help reduce them going forward.

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