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Report: Misdiagnosis is More Common in Women and Minorities

Doctor and patient in the room of computed tomography at hospital.

The first step toward effective medical treatment is correctly diagnosing the medical condition itself. If doctors don’t know what a patient has, then they can’t even begin to treat it correctly.

Hundreds of thousands of patients are harmed by diagnostic errors

Yet despite the critical importance of the correct diagnosis, doctors get it wrong far too often. Every year, about 12 million American adults are misdiagnosed, and about one in six of those diagnostic errors lead to significant harm. And as NBC News reported earlier this year, misdiagnosis is particularly common among women and people of color.

The scope of the problem is vast, and the stakes are high

Again, misdiagnosis affects about 12 million patients on an annual basis. The rate of misdiagnosis varies dramatically depending on the medical condition. Researchers estimate that while only about 1.5% of heart attacks are misdiagnosed, for example, 17.5% of strokes and 22.5% of lung cancers are misdiagnosed.

Cancer misdiagnosis is particularly deadly because most cancers are much more treatable if caught early. A difference of a few months can be the difference between life and death for a cancer patient. Other medical conditions are even more time-sensitive; strokes, for example, are far more likely to cause permanent damage or death if they are not treated immediately.

Those high stakes mean devastating consequences for far too many patients. One study estimated that a diagnostic error was a factor for nearly one in four hospital patients who died or were transferred to the intensive care unit. Another found that misdiagnosis causes 795,000 deaths and permanent disabilities per year.

Misdiagnosis disproportionately affects women and racial minorities

While misdiagnosis is a problem for everyone, it has a significantly greater effect on patients who aren’t white men. According to the NBC article, women and racial and ethnic minorities are 20% to 30% more likely to be misdiagnosed. They are also more likely to be discharged from the hospital without diagnosis or treatment.

One factor in racial disparities in misdiagnosis is that people of color are less likely to have health insurance and less likely to have access to high-quality hospitals compared to white patients. But studies have shown that even when they have the opportunity to visit the same hospital, people of color are still less likely than their white peers to be correctly diagnosed.

Doctors, like all other humans, are prone to bias, and they may be more likely to make biased decisions when they are rushed and overworked. Moreover, research has shown that doctors feel more confident diagnosing white men than women or people of color, and they are less likely to take action when they are less likely to believe their own diagnosis.

Physiological differences can also contribute to diagnostic errors. For instance, medical conditions that affect the skin, such as melanoma and Lyme disease, present differently in people with darker skin. And pulse oximeters, which are used to measure a patient’s oxygen levels, are less accurate for people with dark skin because they work by shining light through the skin.

Given the critical importance of a correct diagnosis, doctors and hospitals need to be aware of these issues and take proactive steps to address them. Bias is not an excuse; it’s the medical profession’s responsibility to take bias into account and compensate appropriately. Likewise, doctors and hospitals need to use diagnostic methods that are tailored to the needs of people with all sorts of bodies, not just white men.

Our law firm stands up for victims of medical misdiagnosis

We don’t expect doctors to make a perfect diagnosis every time, but we do expect them to follow established standards of care when diagnosing patients. That includes ordering the appropriate medical tests, interpreting test results properly, listening to patients to get the full scope of their symptoms, and making appropriate referrals to specialists and allied health professionals. When doctors fail to follow standards of care, the consequences can be devastating.

The Lancione Law Firm has a winning track record in high-stakes medical malpractice litigation, including misdiagnosis cases. In one case, we recovered $4.5 million for a patient whose doctors failed to diagnose an aneurysm. If you were harmed or lost a loved one due to a delayed or incorrect diagnosis, we would be honored to listen to your story and explain your options. Give us a call or contact us online for a free consultation.

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