Hospital Diagnostic Errors Are Common Among Patients Who Died or Were Transferred to ICU: Study

Common errors in diagnosing patients involved clinicians ordering the wrong tests, or mistakes in reading test results, according to the researchers.

For patients transferred to hospital intensive care units (ICUs), researchers warn that misdiagnoses and delays in diagnosing certain medical conditions are frequently the cause of additional health complications, which are sometimes fatal, according to a new study.

In findings published last week in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from the University of California San Francisco found that there are regularly diagnostic errors involving hospitalized patients, which often leads to physical harm for those in ICU, and contributed to the deaths of nearly seven percent of patients examined in their study.

The researchers reviewed data from 29 different U.S. medical centers and randomly selected 2,428 medical records of patients hospitalized with general medical conditions in 2019, who were transferred to an ICU within the second day of their stay, died in the hospital, or both. Two trained clinicians analyzed the patient medical records to determine if a diagnostic error had been made, how the mistake occurred, and if the patient suffered physical harm as a result.

Patients who were transferred to an ICU from an emergency room department were excluded from the study to eliminate cases where diagnosis errors may have occurred in the ER.

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The data revealed 23% of the study participants experienced some type of diagnostic error. Among those individuals, 17.8% suffered either temporary or permanent harm, and 6.6% died as a result of the mistakes. In reviewing the 1,863 patients who died while hospitalized, researchers determined diagnostic errors contributed to at least 121 deaths.

The most common diagnostic mistakes included problems with patient health assessments, issues with ordering the correct diagnostic tests, and errors made by clinicians in interpreting test results.

Their findings are similar to research published in July 2023, which identified medical misdiagnosis errors as a major public health concern in the United States, and estimated these mistakes cause permanent disability and death to nearly 800,000 patients every year. A team of medical researchers sought to determine the underlying reasons of how they occur in this recent study, as current data is limited.

Researchers suggest these latest findings could help improve diagnostic testing and clinical assessments made in hospitals, to diagnose patients more quickly and accurately.

“In this cohort study, diagnostic errors in hospitalized adults who died or were transferred to the ICU were common and associated with patient harm,” the researchers determined. “Problems with choosing and interpreting tests and the processes involved with clinician assessment are high-priority areas for improvement efforts.”

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