How to Avoid Becoming the Next Victim of a Doctor’s Misdiagnosis

close up photo of a doctor with their arm's crossed while holding a stethoscope

If you’ve ever experienced an inaccurate or delayed diagnosis, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone will at some point in their lives, according to new research.

But you’re also one of the lucky ones, because for some people, the consequences are grave. A hospital patient in the U.S. dies due to medical misdiagnosis every 9 minutes, researchers have estimated. This amounts to 80,000 deaths a year.

The estimate comes from the Coalition to Improve Diagnosis, a nonprofit-led coalition of more than 40 patient advocacy groups dedicated to reducing harmful diagnostic medical errors. The reasons for these errors might surprise you.

The Problems behind Diagnostic Error

This month, the coalition launched ACT for Better Diagnosis, an industry-wide effort to improve the quality of diagnoses in the U.S. Up until now, patient advocates realized, diagnoses have consistently fallen short of identifying conditions in time to adequately treat them.

“Providing an accurate medical diagnosis is complex and involves uncertainty, but it’s obviously essential to effective and timely treatment,” said Paul Epner, CEO and co-founder of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, the nonprofit that leads the coalition. “Major improvement is needed to systematically identify how to improve diagnostic quality and reduce harm to patients.”

Over several months of assessing the healthcare system’s diagnostic decision-making, the coalition revealed unsettling obstacles to accurate and timely diagnoses. These include:

  • Miscommunication when patients are handed off from 1 doctor to another.
  • Lack of reporting or feedback when a diagnosis is incorrect or changed.
  • Short appointment windows, which don’t allow enough time for doctors to gather the information needed to make accurate diagnoses or for patients to clarify anything they don’t understand.
  • A generally complicated diagnostic process, with limited information available to patients about their role in the process or to healthcare providers on how to improve.
  • Lack of funding for research on the impact of inaccurate or delayed diagnoses on healthcare costs and patient harm.

Despite lack of research, it’s clear that the diagnostic process – though a defining part of healthcare – is severely and needlessly flawed. These problems can be easily resolved by simplifying the system. Yet in their ironic delay to fix delayed care, healthcare providers misdiagnose 12 million outpatients a year. This makes misdiagnoses the most common cause of medical errors, overall the third-leading killer in the U.S.

The Coalition’s Solution (So Far)

ACT for Better Diagnosis is now calling on the medical industry as a whole to take practical steps to curb misdiagnoses, ensuring they are Accurate, Communicated, and Timely.

The coalition, for its part, plans to develop the technological tools needed to help physicians identify potential diagnostic errors, educate new practitioners, and to patients, communicate test results in plain English. Given that artificial intelligence has already shown beyond-human capacity to diagnose certain conditions – most recently outperforming specialists in identifying heart-attack risk, skin cancer, and certain kinds of lung cancer – this could be promising.

Patients themselves can also help, for example by coming prepared to doctor appointments. With only 15 minutes at your disposal, you’ll need to know exactly what you plan to discuss – preferably only your most pressing concerns. You should also gather as much information as possible about your symptoms beforehand, leaving questions that only your doctor can answer.

Then, after your appointment, try to be proactive in seeking out test results and notifying your doctor of any changes in your condition.

There’s only so much you can do personally to avoid medical errors, of course. You should be able to rely on the experts. When doctors become unreliable, many victims of medical error are forced to take legal action through medical malpractice lawsuits. Hopefully, the coalition’s initiative will provide the resources you need to rest assured, knowing you’ve done your part.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: September 25, 2020