New study: E.R. diagnosis mistakes occur far too often

In 2016, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shocked the nation when they revealed that medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Two months ago, researchers from the same institution unveiled another shocking, unacceptable reality of the country’s healthcare system.

According to the newest study, approximately one out of every 18 patients treated in U.S. emergency departments is diagnosed incorrectly. This translates to 7.4 million E.R. misdiagnoses annually. Of those misdiagnoses, 2.6 million will result in preventable harm and an additional 370,000 permanent disabilities or deaths.

What is going on?

There are a variety of reasons why diagnostic errors are so commonplace in emergency department settings. From understaffing to unconscious bias, emergency rooms are chaotic places where snap decisions must be made regularly and doctors simply don’t always get it right.

The Johns Hopkins researchers also noticed that a very specific kind of mistake is accounting for roughly 40% of all errors that result in deaths and permanent disability. Physicians are struggling when certain life-threatening conditions present in ways that aren’t “textbook.” Meaning, when someone has a spinal cord injury – for example – but their symptoms don’t manifest in the ways that most spinal cord injuries do, they are at a particularly high risk of suffering a devastatingly consequential misdiagnosis.

Processing this disturbing reality

Understanding the frequency with which emergency department physicians make consequential diagnostic errors will hopefully inspire patients to advocate for themselves while in the E.R. and after leaving it.

By speaking up if their concerns are being undermined or dismissed, lives could be saved. By seeking legal guidance if they have been harmed by substandard diagnostic care, patients could ensure that justice is done. In either event, knowledge truly is power.

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