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Medical errors are more common than many people think

Until it happens to them, few people take time to think about the incidence of medical errors. There is mounting evidence, however, that medical errors are much more common than previously believed and that greater attention is needed to address the problem.

Perhaps the most pressing problem currently is missed, delayed and incorrect diagnoses. According to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, missed, delayed and incorrect diagnoses occur in roughly 10 to 20 percent of cases. Although other errors, such as wrong-site surgeries or medication errors, are also a problem, this study indicates that diagnostic errors are by far the most common kind of medical error in the U.S.

Unfortunately, diagnostic errors can have serious, even life-threatening, consequences. In 2009, the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality conducted a study of reported diagnostic errors. Out of the 583 diagnostic errors reported to researchers by doctors, 28 percent were either life-threatening or caused death or permanent disability in the affected patients. Even worse, it is not the case that these diagnostic errors are related to particularly exotic or uncommon conditions. A 2012 study of errors at Veterans Affairs hospitals in Texas found that most diagnostic mistakes involved common conditions such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections. Still, researchers estimated that approximately 87 percent of those cases could have lead to severe harm or death.

The medical community is well aware that diagnostic errors are a serious problem. In fact, a 1991 study out of Harvard University found that diagnostic mistakes accounted for about 14 percent of all medical errors and that about 75 percent of those diagnostic mistakes were caused by physician negligence. Still, decades later, efforts to address the problem of diagnostic errors are lagging behind.

One major hurdle to developing a strategy to stop diagnostic errors is that they are difficult to catch immediately. Unlike other sorts of medical errors, it may take weeks or even years for an incorrect or missed diagnosis to show itself. As a result, it can be hard to identify the exact cause of an incorrect diagnosis. Furthermore, the process of developing a diagnosis - even for a common condition - is complex.

Though diagnostic errors are a significant problem currently, health experts are confident that further study will help doctors come up with a better understanding of how to address the issue in the future.

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