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Study finds alarming rate of misdiagnosis in ICU patients

According to a new study, there is a troubling epidemic of incorrect and missed diagnoses affecting intensive care patients in Colorado and throughout the United States. Approximately 40,000 patients die every year as the result of doctors' failure to diagnose life-threatening, but common conditions such as heart attack, stroke and infection. In the report, researchers stated that this epidemic was "surprising and alarming," a characterization with which most medical malpractice attorneys would definitely agree.

To reach their conclusions, researchers analyzed more than 30 previous studies performed between 1966 and 2011 on diagnostic errors in ICU patients that had been confirmed by post-mortem autopsies. The researchers found that more than 25 percent of patients had a missed diagnosis at the time of their death. In nearly 10 percent of patients, that misdiagnosis was believed to have contributed to or fully caused the patient's death. This means that about 40,000 of the average 540,000 ICU-related fatalities that take place each year may be caused by a inaccurate or missed diagnosis.

The most commonly-missed diagnoses found in the study were heart attack, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia and aspergillosis, a deadly fungal disease that affects patients with a weakened immune system. Together, those ailments made up about one-third of the missed diagnosis in the ICU patients studied.

In recent years, there has been much attention on the growing issue of infections and medication errors causing additional harm to hospital patients. However, researchers say that missed diagnoses in intensive care units are a completely separate issue. The failure to diagnose a life-threatening ailment in a timely manner is an error of omission, and a completely preventable one at that.

Source: The Atlantic, "The Alarming Rate of Errors in the ICU," Cristine Russell, Aug. 28, 2012

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