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Study finds that most medical malpractice involving a delay in diagnosis results from basic errors

Physicians often commit medical malpractice when they fail to diagnose a disease or other condition in a timely fashion. A study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that in a vast majority of the cases studied, medical malpractice was caused by errors as basic as failing to obtain an adequate medical history or perform an adequate physical examination.

The study reviewed 307 randomly chosen closed medical malpractice claims from four insurance companies, all of which involved allegations of missed or delayed diagnosis in an office setting. 60 percent of the cases studied resulted in serious harm to the patients and 30 percent resulted in death. The cases overwhelmingly involved various types of cancer, most frequently breast cancer or colorectal cancer.

The researchers found that in 100 of the cases, doctors failed to order appropriate diagnostic tests. In 81 cases, the error was failure to create a proper plan for follow-up. 76 of the cases involved physician failure to obtain an adequate medical history or perform an adequate physical examination. In 67 of the cases, doctors failed to correctly interpret test results. The researchers also concluded that that factors contributing to the medical malpractice included failure of judgment (79%), lack of vigilance or failure of memory (59%), and lack of knowledge (48%). The study's lead author, Dr. Tejar Gandhi, director of patient safety at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, suggests that these errors could be reduced by more use of electronic medical records and the use of nurse practitioners to make sure that follow-ups actually take place.

An article in the Associated Press quotes Dr. Steven Sorscher, an oncologist at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. As Dr. Sorscher stated concerning the study, "It seemed like the bottom line was that the problems were problems that would occur less if the person was just very compulsive or very diligent. It highlights the fact that the causes of serious errors are often preventable."

Sources: Annals of Internal Medicine; Associated Press

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