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“Big three” conditions cause serious harm when misdiagnosed

Researchers from Johns Hopkins analyzed over 11,000 medical malpractice cases in the effort to determine what conditions are most often linked with medical errors and what conditions lead most often to death or disability. New Jersey residents should know that diagnostic errors are the number one medical error; every year, they are behind 40,000 to 80,000 deaths in U.S. hospitals.

The three most frequently misdiagnosed conditions are cancer, vascular events and infections. Researchers called these the “big three.” They found that cancer was involved in over a third of the medical errors that contributed to death or disability. Vascular events were linked to 22% of errors and infections to 13.5%.

Grouping the various conditions according to diagnosis “codes,” researchers better identified how certain conditions more frequently cause harm, and more serious harm, when misdiagnosed. As a result, researchers determined that the three worst conditions are lung cancer, stroke and sepsis. Twelve other serious conditions were noted, including heart attacks, meningitis, pneumonia, skin cancer and breast cancer.

Most cancer-related diagnostic errors were made in outpatient settings. The other two conditions in the “big three” tended to be misdiagnosed in emergency departments. Failures in clinical judgment were to blame for most errors: failures that can be prevented with better teamwork, better education and the use of technology in diagnosis.

Diagnostic errors can give victims good grounds for a malpractice claim as long as there is clear evidence that the errors were caused by negligence: that is, a failure to live up to generally accepted standards of medical care. Victims must also show that there was a pre-existing doctor-patient relationship and that they followed all the doctor’s instructions. To see how much they might recover in compensation, victims might opt to see a lawyer. Third-party investigators may help build up the case.