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Misdiagnosis

An important study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that misdiagnosis is more common than you might think.  According to the study, almost 40% of patients who unexpectedly returned after an initial primary care visit had been misdiagnosed.  Almost 80% of the misdiagnoses were tied to problems in doctor-patient communication, and more than half of those problems had to do with things that were missed in the patient’s medical history.

The results of this study shouldn’t be surprising if you’re a regular reader here – they are another example of a system that isn’t working as well as it could for patients, and doctors.  Doctors – and the medical professionals who help them in their work – are the best educated and best trained than they have ever been.  They have more access to medical information and technology than at any time in our history.  And yet, U.S. government data show that the typical doctor visit involves 15 minutes or less with your doctor.  Medical records are kept in fragmented, uncoordinated ways.

Continue reading “JAMA EHR Study: Misdiagnosis Poses Significant Potential for Harm”

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Although misdiagnosis may kill up to 80,000 annually—more people each year than firearms and motor vehicle accidents combined—you won’t find it on the list of the country’s leading causes of death.

Most Americans don’t realize how frequently well-meaning medical providers get it wrong. Just last year Johns Hopkins researchers found that one in 12 ICU patients die from something other than what they were being treated for. Aside from a handful of instances covered by the national media, misdiagnosis hasn’t received much attention from the public or the medical community. One such tragedy is the death of Rory Staunton, a 12-year-old boy who was treated for an upset stomach and dehydration instead of sepsis, a severe response to infection that requires immediate treatment with antibiotics. To make a complex diagnosis like sepsis, a doctor may need to assess a couple dozen different factors.

One solution is to arm clinicians with better problem-solving tools and improved IT systems to help them identify possible diagnoses faster and more accurately, especially for conditions that are commonly confused or missed altogether. This week at Johns Hopkins, a team of researchers shared some promising results about a new way for emergency medicine doctors to accurately detect stroke in patients with dizziness.

Continue reading “Ruling Out the Wrong Diagnosis”

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If you study misdiagnosis you realize how often patients get the wrong diagnosis.

But what do expert doctors think about how often it happens? And what do they think can be done to address it?

We wanted to find out so we partnered with the National Coalition on Healthcare to conduct a landmark, nationwide survey. We surveyed 400 cancer specialists from our Best Doctors database – and the findings were provocative.

The survey, “Exploring Diagnostic Accuracy in Cancer: A Nationwide Survey of 400 Leading Cancer Specialists,” focused on what doctors believe to be the most significant barriers in efforts to accurately diagnose cancers; the types of cancer they believe are most often misdiagnosed; and the tools and improvements they most need to combat misdiagnosis.

One of the most surprising findings was on how often doctors believe misdiagnosis happens. While published studies show that misdiagnosis occurs in about 15-28% of cases, the large majority of doctors we surveyed thought it happens in less than 10% of cases. At the same time, doctors recognized that the root causes of misdiagnosis were very prevalent – fragmented medical information, disparities in experience among pathologists and other factors.

So – how to explain the difference in doctors’ perceptions and the published research? I think it is because there is no systematic feedback loop for doctors letting them know of inaccuracies in their care. If you diagnose someone and they go on to get treatment someplace, and it’s later discovered that a diagnosis wasn’t exactly right, the original doctor may never find out about it. If you don’t hear about it, you can’t be blamed for thinking this problem is rare. It also means you miss out on the opportunity to improve the quality of care that these cases represent.

Another interesting point. Doctors reported that, regardless of how often they thought diagnostic inaccuracies happened, it is a problem that needed more attention from policy-makers. As NCHC President and CEO John Rother observed, “Not enough is being done on the state and federal policy end of things to acknowledge and firmly address this critical issue. Given our current health care climate and challenges, as decision-makers become more aware of the frequency of misdiagnosis and the enormous costs associated with it, they have a sizeable opportunity to make diagnostic accuracy much more of a ‘front and center’ issue in health care.”

Here’s to that promising thought.

Evan Falchuk is Vice Chairman of Best Doctors, Inc., where this post originally appeared. Prior to joining Best Doctors, Inc., in 1999, he was an attorney at the Washington, DC, office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson, where he worked on SEC enforcement cases. This post originally appeared on Best Doctors, Inc.’s See First Blog.

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I was struck by the recent story in the New York Times about a young boy who was misdiagnosed, and lost his life.

The boy, Rory Staunton, was a healthy, active 12-year old, until one day he ended up in the middle of our time-strapped, broken healthcare system.  He was treated by good, well-intentioned doctors, at a leading medical center, but something went terribly wrong.  What started out as a minor cut suffered in a basketball game turned into a major infection that took his life.

Yet nowhere along Rory’s journey, from boy with a bellyache on Thursday to gravely ill boy on Friday night, did anyone act on strong indications that he might be fighting for his life. Critical information gathered by his family doctor and during his first visit to NYU Langone was not used, was not at hand or was not viewed as important when decisions were made about his care, records show.

Story’s like Rory’s happen far too often, and in far too familiar ways.  Scientific studies show that patients are misdiagnosed between 15% and 44% of the time.  Researchers have found that the combination of fragmented medical information and not enough time between doctor and patient are the leading causes of this problem.  And yet, much of America is still unaware how often misdiagnosis happens.  Lost in all the politics of healthcare is a recognition that, at its core, healthcare must be about making sure each and every patient gets the right care.

Continue reading “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way …”

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Billionaire Teddy Forstmann has apparently been diagnosed with a serious form of brain cancer.  There’s a tragic twist to the story: according to Fox Business News, Forstmann believes that for more than a year, he had been misdiagnosed with meningitis.

ABC News wonders:

How could such a misfortune befall a billionaire —- a man able to afford the best doctors, best technology and the most sophisticated diagnostic tests?

They’re missing the point.  Misdiagnosis happens with shocking regularity – as much as 44% of the time, depending on the illness.

I’m sure that, as with most things, being a billionaire is better.  But as a neurosurgeon quoted by ABC News points out, even for a billionaire, getting the right care is “still a bit of a crap shoot.”

So how can you improve your odds?  Here are 5 tips that work.

1.  Know your family history – and remind your doctor of it. Don’t assume your doctor remembers that time you told him that two of your aunts died of breast cancer, or that your grandfather and father have a history of malformed blood vessels in their brains.  Research studies have shown that a family history may be a better predictor of disease than even genetic testing.  Find out about your family’s medical history, write it down (the Surgeon General has a good on-line tool to help you do this), and make sure your doctor knows about it – especially if you’re sick and they’re trying to decide what’s wrong.

2.  Ask questions.  The typical doctor sees as a many as 40 patients a day, spending 15 minutes or less with each one.  It’s all too easy to be referred to a specialist and start treatment without having all of your questions answered.  But asking questions won’t just make you feel more comfortable – it can disrupt your doctor’s thought process and make him think about your case in a way that may save your life.  Dr. Jerome Groopman, one of the world’s foremost researchers on how doctors think (he’s written the definitive book on it) agrees:

“Doctors desperately need patients and their families and friends to help them think. Without their help, physicians are denied key clues to what is really wrong. I learned this not as a doctor but when I was sick, when I was the patient.”

You can find some useful tips on how to do this at the U.S. government’s web site, called “Questions are the Answer.”

Continue reading “5 Ways You Can Avoid Being Misdiagnosed”

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