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Why misdiagnoses are a public health crisis

Quality health care is not just a slogan. It is a matter of life and death. Patients rely on their doctors to keep them healthy. To tell them why they are sick and make them well again. But when medical professionals betray that trust, the consequences can be devastating.

Misdiagnoses are the leading cause of medical errors, affecting more than 12 million Americans each year. The trend is so alarming the National Academy of Medicine recently declared missed, delayed or wrongly diagnosed conditions a crisis that “represents a moral, professional and public health imperative.”

Misdiagnoses are often preventable

There’s reason to expect fewer misdiagnoses and late diagnoses. These begin with the fact that most bad diagnoses are linked to just a few ailments. Last year, patient safety experts blamed the “big three” for three-quarters of all misdiagnoses:

  • Cancer (37.8%)
  • Vascular events (22.8%)
  • Infections (13.5%)

When physicians get these diagnoses wrong, patients suffer, and their loved ones often must pick up the pieces. Progressive diseases can worsen. When the doctors miss the signs, they can lead to disabling conditions. Unnecessary procedures and expensive emergency visits can cause more pain and misery – even premature death.

There are more 10,000 known diseases and countless symptoms associated with them. Misdiagnoses may be inevitable, but there are clear places to start improving. More than 71% of diagnostic errors occurred in emergency rooms or outpatient clinics. The most serious harm only comes from a handful of conditions.

“It still won’t be an easy or quick fix,” said the director of the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute Center for Diagnostic Excellence. “But that gives us both a place to start and real hope that the problem is fixable.”

Were you or your loved one misdiagnosed?

Diagnostic failures in U.S. hospitals kill between 40,000 and 80,000 people every year. Most are entirely preventable. Doctors have a duty to use the diagnostic tools available to them. To enlist specialists when necessary. To engage their patients in treatment. To improve training.

Everyone deserves competent medical care and professional bedside manners. Fatigue and preoccupation are no excuse for physicians who make critical errors. Not when those errors could add up to malpractice.