The role of diagnostic errors in adverse medical events

Many adverse medical events are the result of diagnostic errors, and doctors speak up on the matter.

The last thing that any patient in the District of Columbia wants to deal with is an adverse medical event. An adverse medical event refers to the use of medical products on a person that leads to an undesirable experience. A couple of examples include a person who was given a wrong medication that yielded unwanted effects, or if a surgery ended up having complications that required additional treatment. More often than not, a diagnostic error can lead to an adverse medical event.

How serious is the problem?

In a recent report, the Institute of Medicine reviewed decades' worth of medical records and postmortem examinations to identify the role of diagnostic error in adverse medical events. Anywhere from 6 to 17 percent of these events appear to have been related to this issue. Of all patient deaths, around 10 percent were contributed to by a problem with the diagnosis. Overall, it seems that diagnostic error affects 5 percent of adults who receive outpatient care.

What is a diagnostic error?

Whether as a result of a poorly designed health care system, insufficient communication, faulty collaboration or some other cause, diagnostic errors pose a great risk to patients. According to the Institute of Medicine, an error in diagnosis occurs when health problems have not been correctly identified by medical staff. For example, a patient may have been told that she has a serious ailment and then it is later discovered that she does not, or vice versa.

Additionally, a diagnostic error can refer to a situation where the explanation a patient is given is inaccurate or untimely. For example, the patient is diagnosed with one health condition but then it turns out that she or he has a different condition. This can occur when medical tests are read incorrectly or doctors make assumptions.

How can hospitals prevent wrong treatment errors?

As indicated by the statistics, many patients are affected adversely by diagnostic errors and one of the most serious is the administration of the wrong treatment-one that causes harm to the patient or even one that didn't need to be given at all. These situations often cause a delay in a patient receiving the treatment they need. The same report mentioned above has presented the following list of strategies on how hospitals can reduce the amount of diagnostic errors:

  • Report all diagnostic errors in order to help learn from mistakes.
  • Facilitate a work culture that encourages improvement in techniques of diagnosis.
  • Identify diagnostic errors through newly developed approaches.
  • Provide better diagnostic training for health care professionals.

It was also noted that by supporting more effective teamwork and collaboration, many errors could be avoided. The technologies used in diagnosing patients can also be more refined.

What do doctors have to say?

An article by U.S. News & World Report includes the opinions of doctors who reviewed the Institute's report. One doctor emphasizes the importance of coordinating efforts to involve non-physician personnel, patients, and the care provided. Another doctor stated that high pressures and demands lead doctors to make more errors. A third expert, who was interviewed, agreed that the information technology used in diagnosing could be improved.

People in Washington, D.C., who have been negatively impacted because of diagnostic errors may be able to hold the responsible parties liable. Therefore, they would probably find it beneficial to meet with an experienced attorney.