It is estimated that between 40,000 and 80,000 people die because of diagnostic errors every year in the United States. In a study published online in the British Medical Journal Quality and Safety on April 22, 2013, the researchers reported that diagnostic errors were the most common, most costly, and most dangerous medical mistakes in the United States for the 25-year period from 1986 through 2010, finding about an equal number of lethal and non-lethal medical errors.
The researchers analyzed data from the National Practitioner Data Bank for the period of 1986 through 2010 for medical malpractice claims for both inpatients and outpatients. Of the 350,706 paid medical malpractice claims analyzed, diagnostic errors accounted for 28.6% of the claims (100,249 of the 350,706 claims) and represented 35.2% of the medical malpractice claims payments made (the highest proportion of the total payments made).
The most frequent outcomes of diagnostic errors claims were death, significant permanent injury, major permanent injury, and minor permanent injury. Diagnostic errors resulted in death in 40.9% of the medical malpractice claims with the most frequent allegations of injuries to be death and both major and minor permanent injuries (medical errors other than diagnostic errors resulted in death in 23.9% of the medical malpractice claims). Diagnostic errors were the leading cause of death and disability in the medical malpractice claims analyzed.
Diagnostic errors were more prevalent in the outpatient setting than in the inpatient setting (68.8% compared to 31.2%) but they were more likely to result in death in the inpatient setting (48.4% compared to 36.9%).
The total amount of medical malpractice payouts made for medical malpractice claims involving diagnostic errors from 1986 through 2010 was $38.8 billion (in 2011 dollars). The mean medical malpractice payout for medical malpractice claims involving diagnostic errors was $386,849; the median medical malpractice payout for medical malpractice claims involving diagnostic errors was $213,250.
For the most serious injury claims (such as permanent brain damage and quadriplegia requiring life-long care), which represented 4.5% of the medical malpractice claims, the mean payout was $808,591 (the median payout was $564,300). For major injury claims, which represented 13.3% of the medical malpractice claims, the mean payout was $568,599 (the median payout was $355,350). For significant injury claims, which represented 16.9% of the medical malpractice claims, the mean payout was $419,711 (the median payout was $269,255). For claims involving death, which represented 40.9% of the medical malpractice claims, the mean payout was $390,186 (the median payout was $251,745).
Two other studies of medical malpractice claims found that diagnostic errors outnumbered medication errors alleged as the cause of injuries in medical malpractice claims by 26% to 12% in one study and by 32% to 8% in the other study. In a poll commissioned by the National Patient Safety Foundation, one in six people had reported personally experiencing a medical error related to misdiagnosis. Prior studies have reported that between 10% and 30% of medical errors were errors in diagnosis. In a review of 53 autopsy studies, the average rate of major missed diagnoses was 23.5%.
If you or a family member may be the victim of a diagnostic error that resulted in injury or other harms, you should promptly seek the advice of a local medical malpractice attorney who may be willing to investigate your possible medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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