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Study: Half of outpatient misdiagnoses could cause serious harm

In medicine, early detection is often a life saver, and in many cases, the earliest opportunity to detect an illness is not in a hospital room, but in a clinic or a doctor's office during a routine checkup. It's disturbing to think, then, that each year as many as 12 million adults in the U.S. leave a clinic or a doctor's office without having been correctly diagnosed.

That is the claim in a recent study from Houston's Baylor College of Medicine. According to researchers, one out of 20 adults who seek care in an outpatient setting is misdiagnosed each year.

Much emphasis has been placed on preventing diagnostic errors in inpatient care, but very little diagnostic data is available with regard to outpatient settings. The researchers focused on outpatient data and believe that about half of outpatient misdiagnoses could cause serious harm.

The lead author of the study said the lack of data on outpatient diagnostic errors presents a "huge vulnerability," given that the majority of medical diagnoses are made in clinics and doctors' offices.

Using the results of three prior studies, researchers analyzed roughly 3,000 medical records and extrapolated the data. Among those records, the rate of misdiagnosis was a little higher than 5 percent. Considering that each year 80 percent of adults in the U.S. receive care in an outpatient setting, that extrapolated 5 percent suggests that annually 12 million outpatients are misdiagnosed.

Clearly, widespread misdiagnosis is a problem that needs fixing.

For a separate discussion of how emergency room doctors often overlook signs of stroke, please see our post from April 15.

Source: Reuters, "About 12 million U.S. outpatients misdiagnosed annually: study," Curtis Skinner, April 17, 2014

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