A recently released report from the Institute of Medicine, entitled “Improving Diagnosis in Health Care,” provides some sobering information, concluding that there is a dire need for “widespread changes in health care to improve diagnoses.” Among the report’s more alarming findings, is the pronouncement that nearly every American will experience a diagnostic error at some point in their life. While misdiagnoses and failure to diagnosis can result in potentially fatal treatment mistakes, the report notes that this issue gets little attention in most discussions of patient safety due to other seemingly more pressing concerns.
Delays and inaccuracies can be deadly
In technical terms, diagnostic errors are defined as “delays” or “inaccuracies,” which both sound like fairly innocuous mistakes. In reality, delays and inaccuracies actually account for approximately 10% of all of patient deaths annually, in addition to literally hundreds of thousands of injuries in healthcare facilities across the nation. The report identified diagnostic errors as lethal mistakes that continue to endanger patients.
Asleep at the wheel?
Diagnostic errors can range from egregious oversight to simple confusion regarding the true source of a symptom. In one case that made national headlines, a Liberian man carrying undetected Ebola was actually sent home from a Texas hospital with instructions to fill and take $40 worth of antibiotics. Less than two weeks later, the man was dead. In more common cases, pathology reports may reveal deadly diseases such as cancer, which doctors then fail to communicate to patients.
Despite the Institute of Medicine report’s grim results, the paper’s authors see a light at the end of the tunnel. Specifically, they suggest that granting increased access to medical records and data will permit patients to advocate for themselves and challenge diagnoses that may not be accurate.
Whether or not this will prove to be an effective solution remains to be seen. For the scores of patients already injured by erroneous diagnoses or failure to diagnose, such a solution will arrive far too late.