Misdiagnosis Kills As Many (or More) Patients as Breast Cancer

When we lose a loved one to an illness, it is upsetting. But when we lose a loved one without an explanation, it’s infinitely more frustrating. We expect physicians and caregivers to provide optimal care for our loved ones and to accurately diagnose and treat their illnesses. Yet a recent study out of Johns Hopkins shows this is often and tragically not what happens. The study showed that as many lives are lost each year to medical misdiagnosis as are taken by breast cancer!

How Was the Study Conducted?

Dr. Bradford Winters and other associates at Johns Hopkins looked at autopsy results of adult intensive care (ICU) patients to determine if their pre-fatality diagnosis matched what was found in the post-mortem. Nearly 6,000 autopsies were reviewed. The data was then extrapolated to determine what the likely misdiagnosis would be in the population at large and the results are disturbing.

What Were the Frightening Results?

Winters found that between 40,000 – 80,000 deaths occur each year caused by misdiagnosis – which could mean that 100 – 200 deaths of hospital patients could be avoided each and every day. This is made doubly disturbing because the deaths analyzed were from the ICU, where there is a very low patient to staff ratio, higher monitoring rate and greater than normal testing performed. Nearly 30% of ICU deaths involved misdiagnosis. Medical errors are likely killing more patients than a disease as pervasive as breast cancer!

How Does Misdiagnosis Change Outcomes?

Misdiagnosis of minor illnesses may not change outcomes, but when major illnesses, medical events and infections are missed, it can be the difference between life or death. This is extremely worrisome. Winters ranked the misdiagnoses as Class I, II, III and IV. Class I errors are those that are significant and that could have saved the patient’s life. Class II are errors in diagnosis that are major but would not have changed the outcome. Class III and Class IV were minor and wouldn’t change patient mortality.

What Types of Illnesses Were Misdiagnosed?

The majority of misdiagnoses (82%) were vascular events or infections. More than one-third of all of the Class I errors – those that could have saved lives had they been properly diagnosed – included pulmonary embolism (a clot of some type), myocardial infarction (heart attack), pneumonia or aspergillosis (serious fungal infection). Winters also referred to a 2003 study that showed that a major life ending misdiagnosis is twice as likely to happen in the ICU as in the hospital at large. It’s difficult to comprehend how a heart attack, pneumonia or serious infection could be missed in patients monitored this closely.

What Does This Mean for Survivors?

If you have lost a loved one while they were in the hospital – particularly in the ICU – you should ask questions if the diagnosis didn’t seem clear or if the physicians failed to answer questions to your satisfaction. If you don’t feel that your loved one received a proper level of care or that their passing could have been prevented, you may want to request an autopsy.

This is the only sure way to know if the doctors missed something although it may be difficult to think about. Autopsies are not covered by insurance and cost between $2,000-$4,000. They do not affect the appearance of your loved one for the funeral and can give you the answers you need about whether your loved one received adequate care including an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

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