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.
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.