Medication and surgical errors are often the most publicized forms of medical malpractice. However, according to a new study, these types of malpractice claims are not the most common. Nor are they the most likely to be successful. The most common medical malpractice case is based on a misdiagnosis; these claims are reportedly the most likely to be successful as well.
In the study, published online by the British Medical Journal, researchers examined nearly 350,000 malpractice payments recorded in the federal government's National Practitioner Data Base. They found that almost one-third of the successful malpractice claims involved a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnoses and accounted for 35 percent of the total malpractice payouts. It has been estimated that 40,000 to 80,000 deaths per year in the U.S. are due to misdiagnosis or other diagnostic errors, with studies showing that 10 to 20 percent of those deaths occurred due to conditions that were missed when the patient was still alive. Even more alarmingly, close to half of those conditions could have been treated successfully.
The study cited a few examples of serious misdiagnoses. These examples included mistaking a brainstem stroke for simple dizziness to diagnosing an ectopic pregnancy as appendicitis. And while doctors were able to correct the misdiagnosis in some cases, they were able to do so because the disability or condition had already occurred. The study also found that diagnostic errors led to the highest rate of patient deaths (41%) as compared to medication errors (39%) and treatment errors (26%). Patients or family members who believed the misdiagnosis was due to medical negligence and chose to pursue a medical malpractice lawsuit received an average payout of $389,000. This is second only to awards for obstetrical claims.
The study's authors acknowledge that misdiagnosis or diagnostic errors are not easily recognized because of the lapse between when the error is made and when the complications from the misdiagnosis appear. Misdiagnosis can occur from incorrect assumptions, lack of proper testing or improper reading of test results, failure to refer patients to specialists, or failure to conduct a proper patient history. If a misdiagnosis results in injury or harm to the patient, this can certainly for the bases for medical malpractice lawsuit. Typically, only skilled and experienced medical malpractice lawyers can help determine if a doctors conduct constitutes medical negligence or simply a bad outcome that can occur under the best of care.
Washington Post, Diagnostic Errors Are Leading Cause of Successful Malpractice Claims, 4-22-13