Missed Diagnoses, Drug Errors Are Major Cause of Malpractice Suits

Study looked at data on lawsuits against primary care physicians

THURSDAY, July 18, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Most malpractice claims against primary care doctors are the result of drug errors and missed diagnoses, particularly of cancer, heart attack and meningitis, a new review finds.

Researchers analyzed 34 studies published over the past two years, including 15 studies based in the United States.

In the United States, primary care doctors accounted for between 7.6 percent and 16 percent of all malpractice claims, according to the study published online July 18 in the journal BMJ Open. The number of claims brought against U.S. primary care doctors has remained fairly stable over the past two decades.

Missed diagnoses were the most common source of malpractice claims against primary care doctors, accounting for 26 percent to 63 percent of the total, report a team led by Dr. Emma Wallace of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical School, in Dublin.

The most common consequence of missed diagnoses in malpractice claims was death, which occurred in 15 percent to 48 percent of the claims.

Among adults, the most common alleged missed diagnoses were cancer, heart attack, appendicitis, ectopic pregnancy and broken bones. Among children, the most common alleged missed diagnoses were meningitis and cancers.

The second most common reason for malpractice claims were drug errors, accounting for between 5.6 percent and 20 percent of all claims in the studies.

Only one-third of malpractice claims in the United States were successful, according to the review authors.

One U.S. expert in malpractice claims said the results weren't surprising.

"Across all medical specialties, misdiagnoses and delayed diagnoses are the top reason for malpractice suits in the United States, and many of those claims involve cancer and heart attacks," said Dr. David Troxel, medical director at The Doctors Company, the nation's largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer, located in Napa, Calif.

He said that "the only point made in the study that sharply differs from my experience was the mention that indemnity was paid in approximately 30 percent of the malpractice cases examined.

"That statistic may be skewed by the number of claims analyzed by the research that arose from outside the United States -- where laws exist that may define negligence differently. In the U.S., however, more than 80 percent of claims never result in indemnity payment, [most] being judged as frivolous or baseless claims."

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians explains what patients can do to help prevent medical errors.

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