When a family member needs prompt medical help, you trust the team of doctors and nurses working in the emergency room (ER) will diagnose the condition and treat it properly. The same goes for the medical team that will attend to your loved one if he or she ends up in the intensive care unit (ICU).
But research indicates thousands of trauma patient deaths each year are the result of diagnosis errors, and thousands of ICU patients are discovered to have un diagnosed conditions when they died.
The troubling results of an ICU study
A 2012 study performed by patient safety experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine reveals that at least one missed diagnosis was present in more than a quarter of the patients who died while in an ICU. The study goes on to estimate that up to 40,500 adult ICU patients each year have unknown medical conditions when they expire. Even if a patient survives, a misdiagnosis may result in a lengthy hospital stay, an unnecessary surgery and the possibility of extended disability.
Opportunities for misdiagnoses in the ER
Doctors say the emergency room is the toughest place to work because of the speed at which events occur and the pressure to determine whether to admit patients to the hospital or discharge them to return home. Diagnostic errors are common in the ER. For example, doctors could confuse a heart attack with a gallbladder infection or a case of heartburn. A pulmonary embolism could present as pneumonia, bronchitis or an asthma attack. Various conditions share symptoms, and time is often of the essence in terms of proper diagnosis and treatment.
Nonetheless, ER doctors have protocols to rule out the most dire possibilities first and then narrow down the problem to arrive at the proper diagnosis and treatment. A rush to judgment or failure to order additional tests can have adverse consequences — either the proper treatment is dangerously delayed or the improper treatment causes lasting harm.
What you can do if a loved one died or suffered injury
The Johns Hopkins Medical study estimates that diagnostic errorsare responsible for the deaths of 40,000 to 80,000 hospital patients yearly. Many of those fatalities could constitute medical malpractice.
If you had a loved one who died with an unknown diagnosis or a family member whose health has suffered because of misdiagnosis, you may wish to seek legal counsel to help determine what your next steps should be.