UMN study hopes to tackle misdiagnosis

Between 40,000 and 80,000 patients die each year from major diagnostic errors in the U.S.

by Michelle Griffith

A new University of Minnesota Medical School paper aims to tackle misdiagnosis by suggesting a new way to measure safety and diagnosis within health care systems.

Common misdiagnosed conditions include tuberculosis and colorectal cancer, among others. Between 40,000 and 80,000 patients die each year from major diagnostic errors in the U.S., according to some estimates. By studying commonly misdiagnosed diseases and the contexts of care where diagnostic errors occur, researchers hope to develop a framework that health care services will adopt to reduce misdiagnosis. 

Diagnostic error is a significant safety problem in health care because there is no standardized way to measure it and no regulated way to prevent it, said assistant professor in internal medicine and pediatrics and lead study author Dr. Andrew Olson.

The paper strives to measure how diagnosis works and study the trends found in misdiagnosed cases to predict where the misdiagnosis will start in the future, Olson said. 

Hospitals and health care services often have trouble diagnosing patients due to high volumes of patients, lacking communication between employees and the absence of a standardized diagnosis method, said Mothers Against Medical Error President Helen Haskell. 

“Medical systems are chaotic and hospitals aren’t coordinated. Everything is chaotic,” Haskell said.  

Haskell’s son died from a misdiagnosed perforated ulcer that eventually caused sepsis. Her son’s death moved Haskell to start the advocacy group, which supports hundreds of parents who have lost children to misdiagnosis.

Although misdiagnosis rates have improved over the last decade, there is still work to be done, Haskell said.

It’s a vast problem, she said, adding that she often sees hospital staff with less experience afraid to diagnose patients.

No one is sure of the best way to measure misdiagnosis, Olson said. But he said he hopes this paper will motivate health care providers and researchers to collaborate to improve diagnostic errors.

“If this approach to measuring and reporting diagnostic errors is implemented in two to three years, that would be great,” Olson said.