5% of Adults in Outpatient Care Are Misdiagnosed Every Year

A new study published in theBMJ Quality and Safety Journal found that 5% of adults seeking outpatient care are misdiagnosed—equaling roughly 12 million people. The risk of being misdiagnosed can be deadly. When a patient with cancer or other serious illnesses doesn’t receive appropriate medical treatment due to a misdiagnosis, the results could be fatal. In fact, it is estimated that 40,000 to 80,000 deaths a year occur directly from misdiagnosis.

In the past, studies on medical malpractice have focused on hospital settings. This study is the first to focus on outpatient settings, which have increased in popularity in recent years. Misdiagnosis in those settings affects everyone and threatens each one of us who ever goes to a doctor for treatment.

Misdiagnosis from cancer to pneumonia can have fatal consequences. Take the death of John Ritter for example. In 2003, the actor was misdiagnosed two times with heartburn and other similar conditions before he died suddenly from aortic dissection. Other common conditions that are misdiagnosed include heart attacks, clogged arteries, infections, and cancer.

Misdiagnosis occurs at an alarmingly rate, making it the leading cause of medical malpractice in the United States. Overcrowded hospitals and clinical settings and understaffed units combine to make this problem even worse. Doctors and clinicians simply don’t have the time to spend with each patient to review similar symptoms and put the pieces together. As a result, many patients are sent home with the wrong diagnosis—and the wrong medications.

Patients can help protect themselves by being assertive and describing their symptoms accurately. If a doctor doesn’t seem to have time to spend with you, consider getting a second and third opinion—especially if the symptoms are severe or are not improving. Delays in treatment could be the difference between life and death. 

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