IOM study estimates every patient will suffer at least one misdiagnosis

Research suggests that potentially harmful diagnostic errors affect millions of Americans yearly and that every patient will experience one at some point.

Diagnostic errors, including late, incorrect and missed diagnoses, represent one of the most common medical mistakes in the U.S. According to Time magazine, one study published in 2013 found that these errors are the leading factor cited in paid medical malpractice claims. Now, research has shed further light on the prevalence of these potentially devastating mistakes. Troublingly, a new report suggests that every person in Boston will suffer from a diagnostic error at some point.

Alarmingly common errors

The Institute of Medicine recently sought to determine just how many diagnostic mistakes occur in the U.S. each year. As U.S. News explains, the IOM's assessment concluded that these errors haven't been adequately tracked or studied. Researchers weren't able to generate a reliable estimate of the number of these errors that harm patients each year. However, the report contends that these errors happen each day in every healthcare setting and that every patient will experience one at some point.

Previous research supports the assertion that diagnostic errors are incredibly common. According to CBS News, a study published in BMJ Quality & Safety in 2014 estimated that about one in 20 people who receive outpatient care in the U.S. are misdiagnosed. This amounts to about 12 million patients receiving inaccurate diagnoses each year. With mistakes made in inpatient settings factored in, these errors may affect even more people.

Dangerous impacts

Unfortunately, incorrect or missed diagnoses rank among the most serious medical errors, as they may delay necessary care or cause patients to undergo needless treatments. According to Time magazine, the 2013 study that found misdiagnoses were a top cause of paid medical malpractice claims also yielded the following findings:

• Compared to other medical errors, diagnostic errors are more likely to leave patients disabled or result in wrongful death.

• Each year, these errors cause an estimated 80,000 to 160,000 people to suffer complications that result in permanent disability.

• As indicated by paid malpractice claim data, diagnostic errors have the largest financial cost of any medical mistake.

Despite growing awareness about the frequency and impacts of diagnostic mistakes, addressing these errors may prove challenging. As U.S. News notes, the IOM study identified many factors that can cause these errors, from ineffective communication to poorly coordinated medical care. Furthermore, since the diagnostic process is inherently complex and subjective, eliminating all errors may prove challenging. As a result, serious errors such as failure to make a timely diagnosis may continue to harm many patients.

Seeking recompense

While some diagnostic errors may be unavoidable, given the limits of medical science and diagnostic technology, others may occur when medical professionals fail to provide an acceptable standard of medical care. In these cases, legal remedies may be available to victims. Through a medical malpractice lawsuit, victims may be able to recover damages to address their financial costs, physical losses and emotional distress.

People who have been misdiagnosed in Massachusetts must act quickly to preserve their rights. The state's statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims is three years from the date of the incident, although people who weren't immediately aware of a misdiagnosis may have additional time to file a claim. Still, to ensure that these deadlines are met, victims may benefit from consulting with an attorney about documenting the diagnostic error and navigating the claim process.