The next patient safety target: misdiagnosis

A 36-year-old woman recently presented with flu-like symptoms at Shonan Kamakura General Hospital in Kamakura, Japan. Just a week earlier, her son had been diagnosed with influenza, leading her doctors to think that might be the cause of her fever, fatigue, sore throat and dry cough.

But she tested negative for flu, so she was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection, prescribed 1,200 mg of acetaminophen daily and sent home. The woman returned the next day, reporting symptoms of vertigo. Testing showed she had suddenly become anemic. Within days she was dead, felled by acute promyelocytic leukemia, which has a 5-year survival rate surpassing 70% when correctly diagnosed and treated.

The tragic case of delayed diagnosis, presented at the Diagnostic Error in Medicine 6th International Conference in Chicago in September, was one of those extremely rare “white zebras” that every physician dreads, expert diagnosticians said.

“These are tough cases at every level,” said David E. Newman-Toker, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

But new research shows that it’s not just the one-in-a-million diagnoses that get missed, Dr. Newman-Toker noted. Diagnostic errors are responsible for more patient deaths, disabilities and medical liability costs than any other kind of medical mishap.

My latest is in the December issue of ACP Hospitalist, a holdover from when I was still freelancing. Read the whole shebang.