Background: We sought to characterise the frequency, health outcomes and economic consequences of diagnostic errors in the USA through analysis of closed, paid malpractice claims.
Methods: We analysed diagnosis-related claims from the National Practitioner Data Bank (1986-2010). We describe error type, outcome severity and payments (in 2011 US dollars), comparing diagnostic errors to other malpractice allegation groups and inpatient to outpatient within diagnostic errors.
Results: We analysed 350 706 paid claims. Diagnostic errors (n=100 249) were the leading type (28.6%) and accounted for the highest proportion of total payments (35.2%). The most frequent outcomes were death, significant permanent injury, major permanent injury and minor permanent injury. Diagnostic errors more often resulted in death than other allegation groups (40.9% vs 23.9%, p<0.001) and were the leading cause of claims-associated death and disability. More diagnostic error claims were outpatient than inpatient (68.8% vs 31.2%, p<0.001), but inpatient diagnostic errors were more likely to be lethal (48.4% vs 36.9%, p<0.001). The inflation-adjusted, 25-year sum of diagnosis-related payments was US$38.8 billion (mean per-claim payout US$386 849; median US$213 250; IQR US$74 545-484 500). Per-claim payments for permanent, serious morbidity that was 'quadriplegic, brain damage, lifelong care' (4.5%; mean US$808 591; median US$564 300), 'major' (13.3%; mean US$568 599; median US$355 350), or 'significant' (16.9%; mean US$419 711; median US$269 255) exceeded those where the outcome was death (40.9%; mean US$390 186; median US$251 745).
Conclusions: Among malpractice claims, diagnostic errors appear to be the most common, most costly and most dangerous of medical mistakes. We found roughly equal numbers of lethal and non-lethal errors in our analysis, suggesting that the public health burden of diagnostic errors could be twice that previously estimated. Healthcare stakeholders should consider diagnostic safety a critical health policy issue.
Keywords: Adverse events, epidemiology and detection; Diagnostic errors; Medical error, measurement/epidemiology.