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The Wall Street Journal recently published the results of a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins who found that diagnostic errors accounted for a major and costly portion of the overall medical errors that take place in the U.S. each year.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety, involved researchers examining 350,000 medical malpractice claims that have been filed over the past 25 years. The results were clear that the most common, most expensive and, ultimately, the most dangerous errors were in misdiagnosing patients. The study estimated that such misdiagnosis leads to permanent injury or death in as many as 160,000 people each year.

The study found that out of the 350,000 malpractice claims examined, diagnostic errors accounted for almost 30 percent of the total number, more than any other categories including surgical mistakes, medication errors or treatment complications. Diagnostic mistakes also made up the largest share of the total claim payments, around 35 percent of all the money paid out in med mal cases. Finally, the study found that diagnostic errors were responsible for death in more than 40 percent of the claims, the highest of any category of error.

The study found that the five most commonly misdiagnosed conditions were pneumonia, worsening congestive heart failure, renal failure, cancer and kidney infections. Researchers concluded that some of the reasons that led to these diagnostic errors include a breakdown in communication between patients and doctors during the initial visit, a failure to refer patients to specialists, inadequate medical histories and a failure by doctors to follow up with patients.

One problem identified by the researchers was that few hard numbers regarding misdiagnosis are available. Doctors and hospitals never report their diagnostic error rate, despite revealing other quality measures such as surgery outcomes. More transparency might help bring the number under control and provide useful information to patients. Other measures suggested include using software that can alert doctors to other possible conditions that fit the same symptoms.

Though most physicians are highly skilled and strive to do good for each and every patient, mistakes happen that can leave people seriously injured or even dead.

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