A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found shocking rates of misdiagnosis in American emergency departments. About 130 million people go to the emergency department each year, and about 6% of them are misdiagnosed. That works out to approximately 1,400 misdiagnoses per U.S. emergency room per year.
Getting the diagnosis wrong often leads to the patient getting the wrong treatment. That incorrect treatment likely has no positive effect on their actual illness. The disease can gain ground during this period of improper treatment, leading to a much less favorable outcome. Also, the incorrect treatment comes with risks and side-effects of its own that can harm the patient.
The HHS report’s researchers examined almost 300 studies from the past 20 years. They estimated that there are approximately 7.4 million misdiagnosis events in ERs each year. Of those misdiagnosed patients, 2.6 million were harmed in a way that could have been prevented, and 370,000 became permanently disabled or died.
HHS notes that this error rate is similar to error rates seen in primary care and inpatient hospital settings.
These five conditions accounted for 39% of the misdiagnoses
- Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
- Aortic aneurism
- Spinal cord injury or compression
- Venous thromboembolism
Also, it was generally true that women and people of color were at 20-30% higher risk of misdiagnosis. This could be because they often exhibit “atypical” symptoms.
Emergency physician groups push back
Ten leading emergency physician groups described the report as “misleading” and “incomplete,” according to CNN Health. This is because, they argue, emergency physicians’ role is not primarily to diagnose medical conditions but to stabilize patients and release them for further diagnosis and care.
They also point out that some of the underlying studies referred to in the paper are from other countries. It is possible they do not reflect the U.S. diagnostic rate.
What should you do after an emergency department diagnosis?
Assuming that these findings are substantially accurate, about 6% of emergency department visitors are probably being misdiagnosed.
The ER can be chaotic. It can be hard for physicians to maintain the highest diagnostic standards. That is not an excuse, but it is something we should all keep in mind. If you have any concerns about an emergency department physician’s diagnosis, do not hesitate to speak up. Even in an emergency, it could be appropriate to get a second opinion.
If you were misdiagnosed and your medical condition became worse as a result, you may have a valid medical malpractice claim. You should not delay in seeking a legal consultation from an experienced medical malpractice attorney.