Diagnostic errors are a serious threat to West Virginia patients

Diagnostic errors are a widespread problem that account for between 40,000 and 80,000 deaths across the country every year.

In December of 2011, a man went to the emergency department of a West Virginia hospital complaining of severe chest pain and back spasms. According to the West Virginia Record, the man underwent several tests, one of which revealed that he had suffered a fracture in his ribs. However, according to a lawsuit the main filed against the hospital, the attending physician did not make any report of the injury, and the man was sent home. After a year of continued pain, the man had more X-rays performed.

A physician finally made note of the fracture in the 2012 results, yet the man claims that he lost the opportunity to have timely corrective surgery. A diagnostic mistake can cause a patient additional pain and suffering and - in some cases - even result in death.

How mistakes occur

There are several classifications of diagnostic errors, including the following:

  • Failing to diagnose an illness
  • A delay in the diagnosis
  • Incorrectly diagnosing the problem

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that these mistakes often arise based on cognitive biases that a physician holds. For example, a doctor could place too much emphasis on test results instead of exploring other ways to pinpoint a problem. Tests can return false negatives, which can lead to a delay in diagnosis.

Doctors may also be predisposed to diagnose someone with a certain illness due to seeing a number of other patients who have similar symptoms. It is also possible that a physician has a first impression of what the condition could be, which colors the way he or she looks at other symptoms.

A widespread issue

In 2013, researchers from Johns Hopkins released a study that sought to explore how impactful these diagnostic mistakes can be. The team studied 25 years' worth of payouts from medical malpractice claims. Researchers found that errors related to diagnoses comprised not only the largest portion of the claims, but also represented the highest amount of payouts at a whopping $38.8 billion over the 25-year period.

Perhaps even more disturbing, these mistakes were found to cause the most severe harm among patients. Indeed, the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine reports that between 40,000 and 80,000 people die every year due to a diagnostic error.

What West Virginia patients can do

Patients are not responsible for the mistakes that physicians make. West Virginia allows for people harmed by medical malpractice to file a lawsuit within two years of the injury or from the date the injury was discovered.

When it comes to preventing a diagnostic mistake, the health care industry has to improve on items such as following up with patients after testing. The AHRQ also points out that physicians should be aware of the possibility that their thinking could be biased, giving them a chance to try to look at a patient without prejudice toward a certain diagnosis.

Patients can do their part to ensure they are receiving the best possible treatment. WebMD suggests keeping a clear record of a patient's medical history and clearly communicating every symptom with a physician. Doctors should always be made aware of any medications a patient is taking as well.

People who have suffered as the result of a diagnostic error should consult with an attorney.