Medical Diagnostic Errors are the Primary Cause of Malpractice Claims

Based on a Johns Hopkins University study, a prior blog post provides some alarming statistics on surgical “never events” (a term used in the medical community to describe a preventable surgical event that is “never” supposed to occur) that actually do occur.  More recently from the same university, a study concluded the following:

  1. Of approximately 350,000 medical malpractice claims paid in the last 25 years, medical diagnostic errors surpassed surgical or medication errors in (i) number of malpractice claims, (ii) amount of patient harm, and (iii) dollar amount of penalties paid.
  2. Diagnostic errors comprised almost 30% of the 350,000 claims.
  3. The approximately 100,000 diagnostic errors were more likely to lead to death or patient disability than surgical or medication errors.

Some medical experts hypothesize (with practical rationale) that diagnostic errors are under-recognized because they are hard to measure and validate with sometimes lengthy periods of time between the time the error occurs and the time it is detected.  Surgical and medication errors jump this significant hurdle since these errors are generally recognized immediately.  This hurdle may stifle diagnostic-error patients from even pursuing and filing a medical malpractice claim.  Recall that for a claim to be successful, plaintiff (the patient) needs to prove that (i) the treating medical professional fell below the accepted standard of care, and (ii) the alleged substandard care caused the injury.  Relatively large time gaps between the diagnostic error occurrence and its detection may make proving the case tough.

This study’s results was based on 25 years of paid claims maintained at the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), a federal repository of medical malpractice claims.  Thus, there are undoubtedly significantly more patients that experience a medical error. These patients either (i) fail to file a claim or (ii) fail to prove the liability of their case and thus do not get paid their claim.  However, conceptually, it is unlikely that the study’s allocation statistics would change materially.  That is, even if one accounted for all patients errors (i.e., patients that do not file a claim or do not prove the liability of their case), the statistic that almost 30% of paid claims constitute diagnostic errors (and these error are the leading cause of malpractice claims) is unlikely to change significantly.

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