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Diagnostic Errors with Potentially Serious Consequences Affect 1 in 20 Patients

Diagnostic error may be far more common than most people think. A new study estimates that up to 12 million Americans don’t get the correct diagnosis when they visit their doctors’ offices.

The researchers analyzed three previous studies of outpatient diagnostic errors. They discovered a 5 percent error rate, with up to half of the errors carrying the potential for serious harm for the patient. That means as many as 6 million adults could be harmed annually because of diagnostic errors.

This study did not take into account mistakes in diagnosis that occur in hospitals or nursing homes. Some previous studies have suggested that diagnostic error rates in such institutions may be substantially higher. Lack of a correct diagnosis means that many patients don’t receive the appropriate treatment for their condition in a timely fashion. In cases of cancer, delay can be lethal.

[BMJ Quality & Safety, April 17, 2014]

You may be interested in our one-hour interview with Lisa Sanders, MD, of the Yale University School of Medicine and author of the Think Like a Doctor column in The New York Times. Her book is Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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