We have previously noted the on this site that there are an alarming number of deaths each year due to errors in a hospital setting. It seems that each month another article comes out that reevaluates the evidence and concludes an evening higher number than the last. Regardless of the source, though, the number is alarmingly high.
If everyone can agree that the number of individuals being harmed at the hands of healthcare negligence is too high, then next questions asked must be “why?” and “how do we stop it?” The Wall Street Journal recently published an article attempting to address both of these questions.
Based upon the percent of total amount of medical negligence payouts (a debatable metric, but sufficient for the purposes of the article), the WSJ concludes that diagnostic problems constitute the most serious source of medical negligence. As an attorney who spends a great deal of time reviewing potential medical negligence, I would agree that a significant amount of the cases that come across my desk are failures to diagnoses, of which many of the failures have lead to devastating harm. Even more than the number of claims and the types of harm, though, failure to diagnose claims are troublesome because so often they go to the core of what we as patients expect from our healthcare providers. Most often patients visit a doctor’s office (or hospital) to either make sure there is no diagnosable malady (routine checkup) or find out what is causing a concerning sign or symptom. Society can accept that there may be problems for which science hasn't found a cure, but we expect if a diagnosis is available, it be made appropriately.
There are many factors that can contribute to failing to properly diagnose a patient, and thus there is no one solution to the problem. We have previously written on efforts to establish systems of care akin to what has become the standard in the aviation industry. The WSJ discusses several additional potential solutions including the mining of information in electronic medical records, changing the way physicians approach diagnostic decision making, and the use of electronic diagnostic systems. Additionally, the article suggests several ways in which patients can help avoid reduce these errors, too.
There is enough uncertainty in medicine—sometimes described as more of an art than a science—that sprinkling in avoidable errors by healthcare providers is a recipe for chaos. It is virtually universal that the earlier a disease is diagnosed, the better the chance a patient has for a positive outcome. While the number of individuals harmed by medical negligence remains disturbingly high, it is important to know that there are real attempts to being made to try and reduce the frequency—and resulting harm—of such errors.