In 2003, actor John Ritter suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm at age 54. His physicians missed the diagnosis. They apparently failed to take a family history that might have revealed the problem. Ritter died as a result of this diagnostic failure. Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Southern California paid a medical malpractice settlement of $9.4 million to his family.
It’s unclear whether Ritter was treated for another condition while being left untreated for the aneurysm. Far too often, however, a missed diagnosis means that you are treated for the wrong condition while not being treated for the right one.
We can easily understand the problem with a failure to treat the patient’s actual condition. In many cases, there is just one opportunity to catch and treat a medical condition before it gets worse. A delay can mean a more negative prognosis — or worse. Failure to diagnose a serious condition right away can even lead to death, as in Ritter’s case.
Treatment for the wrong condition is also harmful, although the harm can be more subtle. The treatment will be ineffective, of course, but it may also cause harmful effects. Every medical intervention has some risk, and patients with the wrong diagnosis are taking those risks for no good reason.
“Diagnostic errors are the most common, most catastrophic and most costly of medical errors,” said a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins University recently, as he announced the results of a study on misdiagnosis that examined records of malpractice claims.
Another recent study from a medical malpractice insurer covered misdiagnoses specifically in emergency departments and some steps that could reduce their numbers. Together, the two studies give us some new insights into how common and deadly serious a missed diagnosis can be.
A look at misdiagnosis by tracking medical malpractice claims
The Johns Hopkins study examined 55,377 medical malpractice claims from between 2006 and 2015 that reached settlement or verdict. Of those, 11,592 (about 21%) involved alleged diagnostic errors. Of the diagnostic errors, almost three-quarters involved cancer, infections and vascular events like heart attacks or strokes. Wrong or delayed diagnosis was cited in 34% of malpractice claims where the patient was seriously disabled or died.
The insurance study focused specifically on emergency departments. It found that 47% of ER-related medical malpractice claims involved diagnostic errors. That compares to only 33% of total malpractice claims.
This second study identified specific areas where mistakes commonly lead to misdiagnosis:
- In 33% of claims, the physical exam or patient history was an issue
- In 52% of claims, the diagnostic decision-making process was a factor
In order to prevent errors, ERs need to focus harder on getting those two things right, along with ensuring that the evaluation of the patient is ongoing throughout their care. In addition, emergency departments should adopt strict protocols that require certain parts of the patient’s medical history and family history to be documented.
Another area where ER patients’ diagnoses are missed is triage. When patients are left waiting, their conditions may change or worsen, but healthcare workers sometimes forget to check for that.
Finally, communication can suffer when a patient is handed off from one caregiver to the next. The outgoing personnel needs to brief the incoming personnel on the background, the current situation, an assessment of the situation and any recommendations for care.
Do you think a healthcare professional missed the signs in your case?
A missed diagnosis can be life-threatening and can reduce your chances of recovering fully. If you suspect you weren’t diagnosed correctly right away, discuss your situation with a knowledgeable medical malpractice attorney.