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Study finds alarming rate of outpatient diagnostic errors

It's understandable how people might feel uncomfortable about the prospect of spending any amount of time in a hospital due to the seemingly innumerable stories detailing everything from high infection rates to high mortality rates. However, thanks to a recently released study, they may now feel uncomfortable in their doctor's office.

A group of researchers set out to learn more about the rate of diagnostic errors (i.e., misdiagnoses) in doctor's offices, clinics and other outpatient facilities. Here, they felt the study was necessary given that 1) there are no exact figures concerning this important issue and 2) the majority of diagnostic errors originate in outpatient settings.

As part of the study, published in the medical journal BMJ Quality & Safety, they gathered data from three prior studies to create a sample body of roughly 3,000 medical records. From there, they began carefully combing through each record looking for possible diagnostic errors.

What they found was truly remarkable. 

This careful analysis revealed that the rate of diagnostic errors among the 3,000 medical records was just above five percent. When this figure was extrapolated to the roughly 80 percent of adults who receive care at outpatient settings every year, the number came out to nearly 12 million people.

In other words, nearly 12 million patients -- or one out of every 20 patients -- are misdiagnosed in doctor's offices here in the U.S. every year.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the researchers also discovered that the rate of diagnostic errors could actually be higher due to errors in the medical records, and that half of the diagnostic errors could result in severe harm (missed cancer treatments, overtreatment, etc.).

"It's important to outline the fact that this is a problem," said the study's lead author. "Because of the large number of outpatient visits, this is a huge vulnerability. This is a huge number and we need to do something about it." 

The researchers believe that the results of the study will help generate a larger discussion among lawmakers, patient safety advocates and medical organizations about the need to address this growing problem as soon as possible.

Here's hoping this proves to be the case. In the meantime, it's important to remember that if you or a loved one have been seriously injured because of what you believe to be medical malpractice that you have options for holding the negligent parties accountable.

Source: Reuters, "About 12 million U.S. outpatients misdiagnosed annually: study," Curtis Skinner, April 17, 2014

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