WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- You may think that surgical mistakes, like leaving a sponge or surgical object in a patient, would lead to the most harm and most malpractice claim payouts. However, a study done by Johns Hopkins researchers found that diagnostic errors are more common and more dangerous than surgical mistakes or medication overdoses.
"There's a lot more harm associated with diagnostic errors than we imagined," says David E. Newman-Toker, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study being published online in BMJ Quality and Safety.
Researchers studied 25 years worth of U.S. malpractice claim payouts. The study found that there were not only more diagnostic errors, but that these incorrect diagnoses caused more severe harm than surgical mistakes or medication overdoses.
Diagnostic errors include incorrectly identifying a patient's illness, but also, giving a delayed diagnosis or treating a patient for an illness that he or she doesn't have.
The study found that death or disability occurred almost twice as much for diagnostic errors than surgical or dose errors, which is notable considering 17 percent of diagnostic errors could be prevented, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Johns Hopkins study found that diagnostic errors are responsible for the highest proportion of total payments, and most of these were missed diagnoses.
Why haven't diagnostic errors been closely monitored if they are more prevalent and potentially more dangerous than surgical mistakes or medication overdoses?
"Overall, diagnostic errors have been underappreciated and under-recognized because they're difficult to measure and keep track of owing to the frequent gap between the time the error occurs and when it's detected," Newman-Toker says.
Newman-Toker adds that previously, diagnostic errors were only measured with autopsy data. Therefore, researchers were not counting disabilities or inconveniences caused by diagnostic errors, which led researchers and doctors to minimize the impact of these mistakes.
Patients should be more cautious when visiting a doctor for the first time about an illness. The study estimates up to a 15 percent chance of a diagnostic error when making a doctor's visit for a new problem.
"More research money needs to be devoted to finding answers," Newman-Toker says. "There just hasn't been enough attention paid to this."