How Often Do Physicians Misdiagnose?

how often do doctors misdiagnoseWe asked physicians inside Sermo how often misdiagnosis happens.  Studies over the past few years have pegged misdiagnosis at anywhere from five to 44 percent, so we wondered what physicians saw in their practices.

The latest research

The latest study released this month found that one in 20 patients received a misdiagnosis with outpatient care, up to 12 million Americans per year.  The definition of a misdiagnosis was when a patient presented with clear symptoms that were missed or not followed up on by the original doctor.  The researchers estimated that about half of the misdiagnoses could have consequences for the patient.

In recent years, other studies have found significantly higher percentages.  A Mayo Clinic study found a 26 percent rate and a Journal of Clinical Oncology found a 44 percent rate of misdiagnosis.

What our doctors think

Physicians noted three points about misdiagnosis:

  • Often not all the symptoms are apparent early in the progression of an issue
  • Often the treatment is the same for similar issues and doesn’t affect patient care
  • Sometimes a primary care physician will refer to a specialist with an initial diagnosis that is then refined or corrected

As one orthopedic surgeon wrote, “I have a PCP who sends me dozens of ‘frozen shoulders’ (adhesive capsulitis).  Almost none of them are, but they have shoulder pain, so I treat that, the ‘missed’ diagnosis means nothing.”

A family practitioner added, “since diagnosis is a complex process that involves the process of elimination, differential diagnosis, probability, chance, quality of communication, and availability of resources, yes, of course a preliminary and secondary diagnosis may be incorrect. The important thing is to reach as accurate a diagnosis as possible, or specific as possible, without harming the patient along the way.”

The researchers from the most recent study suggested a thorough history and exam to reduce misdiagnoses.  They also recommended implementing policies to better track misdiagnoses and correct any problems.

As a physician what do you think about misdiagnoses?  Have you seen any cases that impacted a patient negatively? We’ll be discussing this and more inside Sermo, if you’re an M.D. or D.O. please join us.



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