diagnosis-errors-300x199A new study published by the Journal BMJ Quality and Safety sought to characterize the frequency, health outcomes, and economic consequences of medical malpractice claims within the United States.  The study’s authors analyzed closed, paid malpractice claims from the National Practitioner Bank, with claims dating back to 1986.  In total, 350,706 paid claims were analyzed. 

Errors in diagnosis accounted for the most medical malpractice claims with 28.6% of paid medical malpractice claims stemming from diagnosis error.  This was more than claims arising out of injury related to treatment (27.2%), surgery (24.2%), obstetrics (6.5%), medication (5.3%), and anesthesia (3%).  Further, the study found that diagnostic errors more often resulted in death (40.9%) than any other type of mistake (23.9%).  Although diagnostic errors were more likely to arise during outpatient care, inpatient diagnostic errors were more likely to be lethal with 48.4% of inpatient diagnostic errors resulting in death versus 36.9% for outpatient diagnostic errors.  Adjusting for inflation, the 25 year sum of diagnosis related payments was $38.8 billion dollars with a mean per claim payout of $386,849.00.  A graphic from Diederich Healthcare illustrating the trends from 2012 can be found here.  According to the analysis performed by Diederich Healthcare, there was a med-mal payout every 42 minutes in 2012.

The BMJ study concludes that diagnostic errors appear to be the most common and costly of medical mistakes and that the public health burden of diagnostic errors could be twice as much as previously estimated.  As illustrated by these findings, improving diagnostic safety is a critical consideration not only with respect to patient care but also in reducing the frequency of medical malpractice claims.