Misdiagnoses May Cause Thousands of Deaths Every Year

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According to a John Hopkins study published in BMJ Quality and Safety, over 40,500 patients “may die annually when clinicians fail to diagnose hidden life-threatening conditions such as heart attack and stroke.”

The unexpectedly high frequency of deadly misdiagnosis in hospital intensive care units or ICUs was “surprising and alarming,” said Dr. Bradford Winters, the lead author of the study. After a systemic analysis of 31 different studies in the medical literature from 1966 to 2011 involving autopsy-confirmed diagnostic errors in adult ICU patients, the Hopkins researchers calculated that more than one in four patients — 28 percent — had a missed diagnosis at the time of their death. In about 8 percent of patients, the misdiagnosis was serious enough to have caused or contributed to the patients’ deaths, Winters said in an interview yesterday.

The Hopkins study found that misdiagnosis in ICU patients was as much as 50 percent more common than that in general hospital patients. In the United States, about half of all deaths occur in hospitals, and half of hospital deaths take place in ICUs or immediately following ICU stays. Winters said that the Hopkins study suggests that as many 40,500 of the 540,000 ICU-related deaths in the US annually may result from a major diagnostic failure.

While hospital critical care units are renowned for their valiant life-saving efforts involving the sickest of patients, there has been growing recognition of the potentially preventable hazards involved in such intensive care, with a particular focus on hospital-caused infections or medication errors. The Atlantic, 28 Aug 2012.

The annual cost of medical malpractice in the United States is estimated at $55.6 billion.