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Johns Hopkins Researchers Determine 795,000 Americans Harmed from Diagnostic Errors Annually

Clinical laboratories can play a critical role in helping doctors to order correct tests and interpret the results

Nearly 800,000 Americans die or are permanently disabled each year due to diagnostic errors. That’s according to research conducted at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine that found most misdiagnoses are due to cognitive errors on the part of the treating physicians. Many diagnoses typically begin with–and are often achieved through—clinical laboratory testing. For that reason, the range of diagnostic errors identified in this study will interest pathologists and lab managers.

Of course, many types of diagnostic errors have nothing to do with lab tests. That said, the research team noted that some diagnostic errors take place when physicians do not pay attention to test results that indicate a patient is not doing well, or do not understand the significance of the test results. There are also examples where doctors order the wrong lab tests for patients’ symptoms.

The Johns Hopkins study findings were published in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety titled, “Burden of Serious Harms from Diagnostic Error in the USA.” The research team determined that only 15 diseases “accounted for 50.7% of total serious harms” and nearly 40% of those harms involved just five medical conditions:

These can be narrowed down even further to just three categories, the researchers noted in BMJ Quality and Safety. They are:

  • Major vascular events,
  • Infections, and
  • Cancers.

In an interview with CNN Health, lead author of the study David Newman-Toker, MD, PhD, a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins and Director of the Division of Neuro-Visual and Vestibular Disorders, said “These are relatively common diseases that are missed relatively commonly and are associated with significant amounts of harm.”

David Newman-Toker, MD, PhD

“We focused here on the serious harms, but the number of diagnostic errors that happen out there in the US each year is probably somewhere on the order of magnitude of 50 to 100 million,” neurologist David Newman-Toker, MD, PhD (above), professor and Director of the Division of Neuro-Visual and Vestibular Disorders at Johns Hopkins, who led the study, told STAT. “If you actually look, you see it’s happening all the time.” Clinical laboratories play a key role in ensuring correct understanding of the tests they perform. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins University.)

Changes to Healthcare Risk Management

According to Newman-Toker, the Johns Hopkins study is “the first population health estimate of the number of patients seriously harmed. It also provides more information about the distribution of the diseases that are involved,” Relias Media reported.

The sheer volume of this issue is not lost on the researchers. Newman-Toker likens it to measuring an iceberg.

“You dive below the surface, and you measure the circumference of the iceberg, and [you] will say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s really big down here.’ And then you go five more feet, and you measure the circumference, and it keeps getting bigger. By the time you’re 20 feet below the surface, you realize this is huge,” he told Relias Media.  

Newman-Toker believes his team’s research offers an opportunity for physicians and healthcare risk managers to better understand how exactly to prioritize their resources and focus their efforts. “In terms of how it informs their day-to-day decision-making, it really is rebalancing some of the efforts a little bit in the direction of conditions that are more common and more commonly misdiagnosed than perhaps indicated by simply looking at claims data,” he noted.

Vascular events can present in symptoms typical of much less serious conditions. Strokes, for example, can present with vague symptoms such as a headache or dizziness. This is similar to heart attacks, which can just present as chest pains. However, heart attacks are far less misdiagnosed than strokes because of a decades-long effort to eradicate those diagnostic errors.

“Diagnostic errors are errors of omission,” Daniel Yang, MD, an internist and Program Director for the Diagnostic Excellence Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, told CNN Health. “The question is: Could [the outcome] be prevented if we had done something differently earlier on? Oftentimes, that’s a judgment call that two doctors might disagree on.”

Physicians and risk managers can work together to determine the best course of action to identify vague symptoms and prevent the deaths and serious injuries that can come from diagnostic errors.

Economic Cost of Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis also comes with a huge economic burden. William Padula, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical and Health Economics at USC Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, laid out the cost burden for STAT News.

“A patient comes into the ED with a headache or dizziness, and they get told it’ll go away, and then they go home. And then a week later, you find out that they [had] a stroke,” he explained. “By then, the stroke has compounded so much that what could have been addressed in the moment … for $10,000 now becomes a $100,000 issue. … So, there’s a margin of $90,000 that has been added to the US health system burden because of the misdiagnosis.”

Padula estimates that the total cost for these misdiagnoses could come to as much as $100 billion on the healthcare system.

What’s the Solution?

How can physicians avoid misdiagnoses and keep their patients safe? Newman-Toker suggests that physicians consult with other doctors. “I believe that the quickest way to solve the diagnostic error problem in the real world would be to construct approaches that basically rely on the ‘phone a friend’ model,” he told STAT News.

“This doesn’t mean that the patient should have to seek a second opinion, but rather that providers should make it standard practice to consult with a colleague before providing a diagnosis or dismissing a patient,” STAT News added.

Clinical laboratory professionals should note that while these misdiagnoses do not take place in the lab, doctor may order incorrect tests for patients by misreading their symptoms. Thus, clinical pathologists and lab scientists can play a critical role in helping doctors to order the correct tests for their patients and accurately interpret the results.

—Ashley Croce

Related Information:

Burden of Serious Harms from Diagnostic Error in the USA

Burden of Harm from Diagnostic Error Still High

Diagnostic Errors Linked to Nearly 800,000 Deaths or Cases of Permanent Disability in US Each Year, Study Estimates

Misdiagnoses Cost the US 800,000 Deaths and Serious Disabilities Every Year, Study Finds

Cognitive Errors in Clinical Decision Making

What is Diagnostic Error?

“Choosing Wisely” Program Wants to Encourage Better Utilization of Clinical Pathology Laboratory Tests

New lab test market could open up if research findings lead Consumer Reports and nine medical specialty associates join forces to target the overuse of certain diagnostic procedures, including some medical laboratory tests

For years, pathologists and physicians have spoken out about the overuse of medical laboratory tests and other diagnostic procedures. Now an interesting alliance of a medical specialty association and Consumer Reports has come together with a highly-publicized plan designed to reduce unnecessary or inappropriate testing by encouraging physicians to more deeply involve patients in the process.

It is the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIMF) that is working with Consumer Reports. Their common goal is to stanch the overuse of unnecessary healthcare tests and procedures that do not improve patient outcomes and do run up healthcare costs. Experts estimate the wasteful use of healthcare resources accounts for as much as 30% of current healthcare costs in the United States.

The program is called “Choosing Wisely” (CW). According to a story in Modern Healthcare (MH), “Choosing Wisely” is a campaign to get physicians and patients to discuss whether a particular test is likely to improve patient health or outcome.

Choosing Wisely by Amc Soc Nephrologycrop

Pictured above is the press conference conducted by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIMF) to announce the launch of the “Choosing Wisely” campaign. The goal of this campaign is to reduce overutilization or unnecessary ordering of diagnostic procedures. Each of nine medical specialty associations has put forth a list of specific diagnostic procedures that should be part of this campaign and a number of clinical laboratory tests are on these lists. (Photo copyright by American Society of Nephrology.)

Participating in this initiative are about 375,000 physicians in nine specialty societies. Each of these nine medical specialty groups has identified five diagnostic tests or procedures within their specialty area that warrant re-evaluation by physicians and patients as to whether they will provide useful information or lead to a positive outcome. Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists will be interested to learn that a number of these medical specialty associations have included clinical laboratory tests on their respective lists.

“What we’re asking for is for people to have a conversation,” stated Daniel B. Wolfson, M.H.S.A., ABIM Foundation Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, in the MH story. “These are not rules; they are guidelines used to guide most—but not all—cases,” he explained.

Writing in a commentary in The Huffington Post (HP), Donald M. Berwick, M.D., Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and former Administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, called the program a game-changer. The physician specialty societies support their claims of overuse with copious scientific citations, Berwick noted.

“These societies have shown tremendous leadership in starting a long overdue and important conversation between physicians and patients about what care is really needed,” said Christine K. Cassel, M.D., President and Chief Executive Officer of the ABMF. “Physicians, working together with patients, can help ensure the right care is delivered at the right time for the right patient.” She was quoted in a Choosing Wisely press release.

According to the release, Consumer Reports is working with American Association of Retired People (AARP) and other organizations representing the lay public to get the word out about the “Choosing Wisely” campaign.

Specialist Physicians Identify Some Medical Laboratory Tests for Review

Below are listed the recommendations made by the different medical specialty associations that identify a clinical laboratory test:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

  • Don’t perform unproven diagnostic tests, such as immunoglobulin G (IgG) testing or an indiscriminate battery of immunoglobulin E (IgE) tests, in the evaluation of allergy.
  • Don’t routinely do diagnostic testing in patients with chronic urticaria.
  • Don’t recommend replacement immunoglobulin therapy for recurrent infections unless impaired antibody responses to vaccines are demonstrated.

American Academy of Family Physicians

  • Don’t perform Pap smears on women younger than 21 or who have had a hysterectomy for non-cancer disease. read article.

American College of Physicians

  • In patients with low pretest probability of venous thromboembolism (VTE), obtain a high-sensitive D-dimer measurement as the initial diagnostic test; don’t obtain imaging studies as the initial diagnostic test.

American Society of Clinical Oncology

  • Don’t perform surveillance testing (biomarkers) or imaging… for asymptomatic individuals who have been treated for breast cancer with curative intent.
  • Don’t use white cell stimulating factors for primary prevention of febrile neutropenia for patients with less than 20% risk for this complication.

American Society of Nephrology

  • Don’t perform routine cancer screening for dialysis patients with limited life expectancies without signs or symptoms.
  • Don’t administer erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) to chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients with hemoglobin levels greater than or equal to 10g/dL without symptoms or anemia.

In its coverage of the “Choosing Wisely” initiative, Clinical Laboratory News, a publication of  the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, (AACC) reported that the utilization changes CW seeks may sound like bad news for the lab,. But sometimes these types of program can end up promoting appropriate clinical laboratory testing over other options, the writer noted.

Medical laboratories should emphasize making sure the right clinical lab tests are used at the right time, suggested Stephen E. Kahn, Ph.D., Chair of AACC’s Evidence-Based Laboratory Medicine Committee.

The “Choosing Wisely” initiative, at a minimum, does provide another opportunity for pathologists and clinical laboratory managers to add value to physicians and their patients by helping clinicians have confidence they they are ordering the right test at the right time, supported by evidence-based medicine (EBM) guidelines.

—Pamela Scherer McLeod

Related Information:

U.S. Physician Groups Identify Commonly Used Tests or Procedures They Say Are Often Not Necessary

“Choosing Wisely”: Physicians Step to the Front in Health Care Reform

June 2012 Clinical Laboratory News: Screening Tests in the Age of Austerity