Compensation Claims for Diagnostic Errors Outnumber other Malpractice Lawsuits

Researchers at the John Hopkins University have revealed that compensation claims for diagnostic errors outnumber any other type of medical malpractice lawsuit.

A team led by Associate Professor of Neurology David E Newman-Toker at the Baltimore University studied medical malpractice compensation claims settled between 1986 and 2010, and found that 28.6 percent of all medical malpractice compensation claims were due to diagnostic errors.

The criteria for identifying compensation claims for diagnostic errors were that a diagnosis had been missed, wrong or delayed – as detected by a subsequent correct diagnosis – from which the plaintiff had suffered a preventable loss of life, injury or avoidable deterioration of an existing condition.

Cases were also included in the study in which a plaintiff had received treatment for a condition which was not present, and the conclusion drawn by Professor Newman-Toker and his team was that “There’s a lot more harm associated with diagnostic errors than we imagined.”

The professor added, “Overall, diagnostic errors have been underappreciated and under-recognized because they’re difficult to measure and keep track of owing to the frequent gap between the time the error occurs and when it’s detected. These are frequent problems that have played second fiddle to medical and surgical errors, which are evident more immediately.”

The research showed that the majority of compensation claims for diagnostic errors originated from mistakes made in outpatient care and Emergency Rooms (68.8 percent vs. 31.2 percent for inpatients), but inpatient diagnostic errors were more likely to be fatal or result in a permanent disability (48.4 percent vs. 36.9 percent).

The report concluded from the study showed that diagnostic errors resulted in death or disability almost twice as often as other error categories (surgical mistakes and medication errors came in second and third) and that the settlement of claims for diagnostic errors accounted for 35.2 percent of the total medical malpractice compensation paid out during the period – $38.8 billion.

Based on the results of the study – which only covered instances of diagnostic errors which resulted in a lawsuit – researchers estimate that the number of patients who suffer a preventable loss of life, injury or avoidable deterioration of an existing condition could be as high as 160,000 each year.

Professor Newman-Toker said “experts have often downplayed the scope of diagnostic errors, not because they were unaware of the problem, but because they were afraid to open up a can of worms they couldn’t close.”