Medical professionals in California and around the country have no idea how many patients are misdiagnosed each year because this data is not properly tracked. That was the conclusion reached by a team of researchers from an analytics company and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine after spending months scrutinizing health care records. The researchers say as many as one in 10 of the people who suffer from infections, cancer and vascular conditions like stroke and heart attack are misdiagnosed. Their findings were published in May 2020 in the medical journal Diagnosis.
Some of the most commonly misdiagnosed diseases are among the nation’s leading killers, but the reasons that lead to these mistakes vary. When a rare tropical disease is misdiagnosed, it is usually because the doctor involved assumes the symptoms are being caused by a far more common condition. A cancer misdiagnoses often involves missing symptoms or failing to order the correct tests. When symptoms worsen and more tests are run, it is often too late to save the patient. A study conducted by the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine revealed that more than 20% of lung cancer diagnoses are meaningfully delayed.
The problems highlighted in the study could be addressed at least to some degree if legislation pending in the U.S. Senate. The Improving Diagnosis in Medicine Act would allocate federal funds to research centers to look into diagnostic errors. The legislation failed to gain traction when it was introduced in 2020, but its sponsor feels that its time may have come. The bill was submitted to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on June 23.
Hubris and fear
Misdiagnoses remain a taboo subject in medicine because doctors are reluctant to admit they make mistakes. They also remain silent because they fear that admitting to errors will lead to lawsuits. The bill pending in Congress may not put an end to medical mistakes, but it would be a step in the right direction.