Although it is difficult to obtain accurate data due to inconsistent reporting methods, medical malpractice may be the third most common cause of death in the United States by some estimations. Some of the most highly severe incidents of medical malpractice involve a diagnosis that is inaccurate or delayed. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, diagnostic errors of these sorts account for approximately one-third of all malpractice cases resulting in permanent disability or death.

A recently published study sought to discover where such diagnostic errors take place and what conditions they involve. The hope is to identify problem areas to solve for better patient outcomes.

Big three

The study involved grouping high-severity errors by diagnostic code to see if any meaningful patterns would emerge. The data demonstrated that the most damaging diagnostic errors tended to involve one of the following categories:

  • Infection (13.5%)
  • Vascular events (22.8%)
  • Cancer (37.8%)

Researchers began referring to these diagnostic categories as the “Big Three.”

Specific conditions

Within the Big Three categories, researchers started identifying specific conditions for which the initial diagnosis was most often inaccurate or delayed. Sepsis is a widespread infection producing pus in the tissues or the blood and was most susceptible to diagnostic errors in its category. Stroke, which represents an acute medical emergency, was the vascular event that involved the most diagnostic errors. The type of cancer most commonly diagnosed inaccurately or in an untimely manner was malignancy of the lung.

Incorrect or delayed diagnoses are more than mere inconveniences. They can also result in severe harm to the patient, including death.