A misdiagnosis occurs in at least 1 out of every 20 patient encounters in doctors' offices, according to a study by researchers at the Houston Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation and Quality, Effectiveness and Safety and the Baylor College of Medicine. This translates into at least 12 million patients being misdiagnosed each year and, of these errors, at least half of these errors have the potential to cause severe harm. The rate of misdiagnosis malpractice in the primary care setting is higher than in any other area of medicine.
Although definitions and criteria for identifying medical error vary, the researchers were able to agree on conceptually similar criteria that let them compare error rates across specialties. Misdiagnoses included errors in colon cancer detection, lung cancer detection and cardiovascular disease. Delayed diagnosis of cancer, although a small percentage of primary care medicine errors, are the most troubling since delayed diagnosis of cancer can be one of the most costly types of diagnostic errors. The researchers stress the need for policymakers, healthcare organizations and physicians to increase their efforts to reduce diagnostic errors.
Britcher Leone & Roth recognizes that physicians are often overloaded with patients and have little time to provide individualized care, all of which increases the rate of error. Misdiagnosis by busy and tired physicians occurs because they are unable to provide the necessary analytical level of thinking required due to time constraints. They are forced to make decisions by heuristic shortcuts that are right most of the time, but not always. Physicians need to be aware of how time pressures create cognitive bias that leads them to incorrect decisions concerning patient care. Most of the time, such errors do not matter ... when they do, the results can be devastating