Diagnostic Error Statistics

Diagnostic Error Statistics

Doctors and healthcare professionals have a professional duty to fulfill: care for their patients by diagnosing problems and improving their health as much as is reasonably possible. Of course, some conditions are inherently difficult to diagnose, but when doctors fail to follow standard diagnostic procedures, patients suffer. The Wall Street Journal as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have recently reported on the troubling diagnostic error statistics. Here is what they reported:

  • As many as 160,000 U.S. patients are permanently injured or killed every year due to diagnostic errors.
  • A Johns Hopkins University study of more than 350,000 medical malpractice claims over a 25-year period found that diagnostic errors accounted for 29 percent of all claims.
  • A Harvard Medical Malpractice Study found that diagnostic errors accounted for 17 percent of preventable errors in hospitalized patients.
  • Misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose claims accounted for the largest share of claim payments.
  • From 1986-2010, diagnostic errors cost $38.8 billion.


Legitimate diagnostic error claims begin with a patient-doctor relationship as do most medical malpractice claims. Usually, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the doctor/healthcare professional caring for them was their primary care physician. In order to name a healthcare facility as a defendant in this type of medical malpractice claim, the doctor responsible for the misdiagnosis must have been an employee of the facility, rather than a contracted medical professional.

There are two major types of diagnostic error: misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose. The former involves an incorrect diagnosis of a medical condition while the latter describes lack of a diagnosis altogether. Both can be very dangerous and result in permanent injury or death to the patient. Healthcare professionals are required to follow strict diagnostic/screening guidelines when evaluating their patients’ health. Diagnostic errors typically happen when they stray from these standards.


The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) cites four major reasons or “bias” that account for diagnostic errors.

  1. Availability Heuristic is a type of bias that causes a doctor to make a diagnosis primarily (or solely) based on their experience with past, similar cases.
  2. Anchoring Heuristic is bias that causes a doctor to diagnose based primarily on their initial impressions despite later findings to the contrary.
  3. Framing Effects is diagnostic bias that is based on peripheral or subtle information.
  4. Blind Obedience is an error that occurs when doctors place total reliance on a medical test result (which can produce false negatives/positives at times).

While medical professionals should use their knowledge and experience in the field to make a diagnosis, they should not and cannot neglect to thoroughly evaluate, counsel and research each individual patient for the most accurate diagnosis. Fox Goldblatt & Singer PC handles these types of medical malpractice cases. If you were injured, please contact us today.

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