Improving diagnosis in healthcare is a moral, professional and public health imperative, according to the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. However, little is known about the full scope of harms related to medical misdiagnosis — current estimates range widely. Using novel methods, a team from the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute Center for Diagnostic Excellence and partners from the Risk Management Foundation of the Harvard Medical Institutions sought to derive what is believed to be one of the first rigorous national estimate of permanent disability and death from diagnostic error.
The original research article was published July 17 by BMJ Quality & Safety. Results of the new analysis of national data found that across all clinical settings, including hospital and clinic-based care, an estimated 795,000 Americans die or are permanently disabled by diagnostic error each year, confirming the pressing nature of the public health problem.
To identify their findings, researchers multiplied national measures of disease incidence by the disease-specific proportion of patients with that illness who experience errors or harms. Researchers repeated this method for the 15 diseases causing the most harms, then extrapolated to the grand total across all dangerous diseases. To assess the accuracy of the final estimates, the study’s authors ran the analyses under different sets of assumptions to measure the impact of methodological choices and then tested the validity of findings by comparing them with independent data sources and expert review. The resulting national estimate of 371,000 deaths and 424,000 permanent disabilities reflects serious harms widely across care settings, and it matches data produced from multiple prior studies that focused on diagnostic errors in ambulatory clinics and emergency departments and during inpatient care.
Vascular events, infections and cancers, dubbed the Big Three, account for 75% of the serious harms. The study found that 15 diseases account for 50.7% of the total serious harms. Five conditions causing the most frequent serious harms account for 38.7% of total serious harms: stroke, sepsis, pneumonia, venous thromboembolism and lung cancer. The overall average error rate across diseases was estimated at 11.1%, but the rate ranges widely from 1.5% for heart attack to 62% for spinal abscess. The top cause of serious harm from misdiagnosis was stroke, which was found to be missed in 17.5% of cases.
The researchers suggest that diseases accounting for the greatest number of serious misdiagnosis-related harms and with high diagnostic error rates should become top priority targets for developing, implementing and scaling systematic solutions.