Researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at more than 350,000 malpractice claims over 25 years. They found that diagnostic errors—defined as missed, wrong, or delayed diagnosis—accounted for nearly 29% of claims, more than other categories such as treatment, surgery or medication. Diagnostic errors made up the biggest share of claim payments at 35.2% of total payments, or $38.8 billion, adjusted for inflation, from 1986 to 2010. They resulted in death in more than 40% of claims.
Part of the difficulty in reducing these diagnostic errors is that getting more cautious and meticulous about diagnostics (“defensive medicine”) increases costs. A medical malpractice system run amok makes this an even thornier dilemma, but the problem doesn’t go away even with malpractice reform.The best hope for bringing down both the number of diagnostic errors and the costs of diagnosis is new technology. Robodocs and computer-aided diagnosis of the kind offered by IBM’s Watson have the potential to cut down on errors and reduce costs. Smartphone apps and sensors will collect and distribute data more efficiently.Big changes are coming to the field of health care. Let’s hope they come in time to stave off national bankruptcy while improving our whole health care system, from diagnostics to treatment.[Hospital technology image courtesy of Shutterstock]