Posted: November 27, 2015

Many Americans will be diagnosed incorrectly at least once in their lifetimes. That is the troubling finding made in a newly issued report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The report found that diagnostic errors are by far the most pervasive in medicine, outranking medication mistakes.

An estimated 12 million patients are misdiagnosed in the United States each year. A major part of the problem is a lack of communication, according to the report.

One example is the case of 37-year-old Gregory Volutza, who visited his doctor after suffering chest and jaw pain. The doctor attributed his symptoms to anxiety, even though Volutza had a family history of heart disease as well as several other risk factors. He was told that he should schedule tests for the near future and, if symptoms returned, he should go to an emergency room. Following doctor’s orders, Volutza had tests performed the following day. A cardiac stress test was normal, but another test conducted using injectable dye showed a reversible abnormality. No one contacted Volutza about the results, and three days later he died of a massive heart attack while at his job.

It was clear in this case that, with a family history and other risk factors, the doctor should have recognized Volutza’s symptoms as a heart attack and sent him straight to the ER. Additionally, after receiving the results from the dye test the doctor should have immediately contacted Volutza to convey that an abnormality was found.

Mr.Volutza’s estate filed a malpractice lawsuit and was represented by Shanin Specter of Kline & Specter, PC who uncovered the negligence and won a $5.2M verdict. The IOM report found that in many cases errors go unnoticed or undocumented and only come to light as part of a subsequent investigation spurred by a medical malpractice lawsuit. 

The IOM report also found that errors in diagnoses can occur due to a number of factors, including: lack of collaboration between clinicians, patients and their families; little or no feedback to clinicians about the accuracy of their diagnoses; and a culture that discourages transparency and disclosure.

Although there is still much work to be done to improve the diagnostic process, bringing the issue to light is the first step in the right direction. However, until we greatly reduce or eliminate the number of misdiagnoses that occur each day, it is a good idea to be aware of some things that patients can do to improve their chances of receiving a correct diagnosis. They include:

  • Be clear and complete about telling your doctor of your symptoms, such as, when the symptoms began. Has anything made them better or worse? Bring notes with you and give them to your doctor.
  • Keep your own records of any test results, referrals or hospital visits.
  • Keep an accurate list of all medications you are currently taking and give it to your doctor.
  • Remember to ask these three questions:

1. What could be causing my problem?

2. What else could it be?

3. When will I get my test results and what should I do to follow-up?

While errors are caused by doctors, hospitals and health care workers, you can help reduce the chances of mistakes in your own case.