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Litigation / Medical Malpractice

Misdiagnosis is a Silent Pandemic

By Waleed Shafi | Updated: Monday, 04 April 2022 15:55 UTC
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Man in mask keeping silence
Man in mask keeping silence Freepik / @pch.vector

A disease is a fault in the functioning of a particular organ inside the human body. The word itself is vile and rolls off the tongue while leaving a bad taste behind. Disease inspires fear, not just for the sufferer, but the people around them as once a diagnosis is made and the ailment is deemed to be serious, correction and recuperation follow and continue on for the next several months.

Simply put, the disease is the bane of life. There are literally thousands and thousands of illnesses recorded in medical books, and possibly millions are yet to be discovered. In fact, over 3 different human pathogens are discovered each year and while that may seem like a superficially low number at first glance, each disease is a different puzzle and adds another number into the column of things to look out for.

Disease should be corrected as soon as possible to mitigate pain and suffering and minimize the damage done to the body. The quicker the issue is fixed, the faster the patient can go on to their normal life. There is a straightforward process and it starts when the symptoms showing up, which leads the patient to a doctor. The doctors hand them a diagnosis after proper testing and discussion and the procedure then moves onto the most effective method of curing the illness if all is handled correctly, the patient is discharged and returns to a normal life. The most crucial part in this chain of events is the moment of diagnosis as all hinges on whether the correct diagnosis is made, so the correct method of rectification will follow. If not, disaster follows.

Diagnostic mistakes are the most frequent medical errors and most often lead to debilitating complications in the long run. According to a 2014 report in the BMJ journals, about 12 million people are incorrectly diagnosed each year in the United States alone. This number is likely several times higher in third-world countries due to outdated technology and a limited budget for testing.

Moreover, as presented in the aforementioned journal, more than half of those diagnostic errors are harmful and frequently fatal in the long run. About one in ten patients with symptoms caused by the three biggest diseases (Vascular, infections, and cancer) will be misdiagnosed. Lung cancer, stroke, and sepsis are the most likely to be misdiagnosed and the repercussions are severe, given how deadly each illness is if not identified and managed from the very onset.

The United States records about 251,000 deaths annually due to diagnostic mistakes. That is an absolutely staggering number and only the tip of the iceberg as many patients do not report these cases and so the actual number is likely far higher. Despite being the third leading cause of death, diagnostic failures remain an under-discussed issue in healthcare.

Once an issue is singled out, research work determines the best possible solution which is then implemented. Unfortunately, the exact issue in this particular dilemma is a bit difficult to pinpoint. Some of the many reasons include inexperience/overconfidence by the doctor, lack of proper time when dealing with a patient, biases against the patient, lack of follow-up and a record of appointments, and finally, a lack of diagnostic testing.

All of these aforementioned reasons contribute to this often under-discussed global crisis. Over the past several decades, medical negligence and malpractice claims have only increased year by year, painting a somewhat sad picture where doctors often carry the bulk of the fault. As a rough average, one doctor spends about 10-15 minutes with a single patient, and that amount of time is not enough, particularly when the patient is dealing with a tricky illness. Ticking off the symptoms and arriving at a faulty conclusion is often the case, according to the details laid out in several malpractice lawsuits. Moreover, some doctors tend to skip diagnostic testing as they hold too much faith in their abilities, and arrive at a conclusion by firing off quick questions, and not listening to the complete history of the illness.

Misdiagnosis leads to mental complications, aside from the onslaught of the missed disease. The patient may develop depression and hypochondria as they are brought back to square one, and often with more issues than they started with. Incorrect treatment can trigger a myriad of other issues, resulting in worse mental health and substantially higher expenses.

This issue is nothing less than a global pandemic at this point and yet, the same is seldom discussed in the context of big healthcare problems that need a solution.

Implementation of protocols in regards to patient dealing, medical training in the practical sense, and more focus on diagnostic tests are some of the methods to cut down on the outrageous numbers of death caused by diagnostic mistakes before the situation worsens.

A total collapse of the healthcare system may occur in the near future if this issue is not rectified. Death and misery will increase substantially but if this continues, undeterred, the public will hold lose confidence in healthcare and medical science.


  1. Institute of Medicine (US) Forum on Microbial Threats. Microbial Evolution and Co-Adaptation: A Tribute to the Life and Scientific Legacies of Joshua Lederberg: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009. 5, Infectious Disease Emergence: Past, Present, and Future. Available from:
  2. Singh H, Meyer AND Thomas EJ. The frequency of diagnostic errors in outpatient care: estimations from three large observational studies involving US adult populations. BMJ Quality & Safety 2014; 727-731.
  3. Anderson JG, Abrahamson K. Your Health Care May Kill You: Medical Errors. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2017;234:13-17. PMID: 28186008.
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