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Diagnostic errors could cause fatal medical mistakes

Medical mistakes can have serious consequences. As the United States increases its attention on fixing a broken healthcare system, identifying the causes of medical mistakes and correcting these mistakes before they occur has never been more important.

A multitude of factors can contribute to medical mistakes. One area in particular that has been receiving a lot of attention in the press is errors that occur because of diagnostic mistakes, including the misdiagnosis of certain illnesses.

Misdiagnosis is particularly concerning to the healthcare industry because of the dramatic consequences it can have on the quality of treatment. Furthermore, the misdiagnosis of cancers and the failure to treat infections or illnesses in a timely manner could even lead to death.

In a recent survey of 6,400 physicians, almost half of them said they encountered diagnostic errors on a monthly basis. Two-thirds of those physicians said that 10 percent of those errors directly resulted in patient harm. Some of the reasons for misdiagnosis include unusual patient presentation, failure to consider other diagnoses and inadequate health history.

One way to avoid a potential misdiagnosis is to seek a second opinion. Second opinions serve a vital role in the diagnostic process to ensure that patients are getting the right care at the right time.

In a study conducted at Johns Hopkins, radiologists who provided second opinions found discrepancies with 7.7 percent of original diagnoses. When the final diagnosis was determined, the second opinion was correct in 84 percent of the cases in the study.

Nevertheless, seeking a second opinion may make not be necessary in some cases. However, patients with unusual or confusing symptoms and test results or those just recently diagnosed with cancer will likely find it worthwhile.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Informed Patient: Diagnostic Errors Highlight Need for Second Opinions," Laura Landro, Jan. 17, 2012

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