American doctors misdiagnose roughly one out of every 20 adult patients they see in an outpatient setting, or about 12 million of us a year—and about half of those mistakes could cause serious harm, according to a new research report. A team led by Dr. Hardeep Singh—who recently won the Presidential Early Career Award for his work in this area—examined three previous studies, also conducted by Singh's team, that looked for error triggers at two major health care systems, like unusual return visit patterns, NBC News explains. And those three studies "yielded a rate of outpatient diagnostic errors of 5.08%," per the report.
"It is surprising—5%," Singh says of the percent of cases where the first diagnosis was wrong, but the information for a correct diagnosis was present. And one patient safety expert sees that figure as conservative. "I would say this is a minimum." Experts tell Modern Healthcare that there are likely numerous reasons for the lapses, among them the way primary care is structured in the US. "Doctors just don't have much time" due to "the pressure to move patients in and out," an American Cancer Society official points out, noting physicians typically have just 10 minutes to arrive at their diagnosis. But doctors have a vested interest in somehow improving the system: Misdiagnoses were the number one source of malpractice claim payouts from 1986 to 2010, according to a recent study. (Read more diagnosis stories.)