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Burden of serious harms from diagnostic error in the USA


Background Diagnostic errors cause substantial preventable harms worldwide, but rigorous estimates for total burden are lacking. We previously estimated diagnostic error and serious harm rates for key dangerous diseases in major disease categories and validated plausible ranges using clinical experts.

Objective We sought to estimate the annual US burden of serious misdiagnosis-related harms (permanent morbidity, mortality) by combining prior results with rigorous estimates of disease incidence.

Methods Cross-sectional analysis of US-based nationally representative observational data. We estimated annual incident vascular events and infections from 21.5 million (M) sampled US hospital discharges (2012–2014). Annual new cancers were taken from US-based registries (2014). Years were selected for coding consistency with prior literature. Disease-specific incidences for 15 major vascular events, infections and cancers (‘Big Three’ categories) were multiplied by literature-based rates to derive diagnostic errors and serious harms. We calculated uncertainty estimates using Monte Carlo simulations. Validity checks included sensitivity analyses and comparison with prior published estimates.

Results Annual US incidence was 6.0 M vascular events, 6.2 M infections and 1.5 M cancers. Per ‘Big Three’ dangerous disease case, weighted mean error and serious harm rates were 11.1% and 4.4%, respectively. Extrapolating to all diseases (including non-‘Big Three’ dangerous disease categories), we estimated total serious harms annually in the USA to be 795 000 (plausible range 598 000–1 023 000). Sensitivity analyses using more conservative assumptions estimated 549 000 serious harms. Results were compatible with setting-specific serious harm estimates from inpatient, emergency department and ambulatory care. The 15 dangerous diseases accounted for 50.7% of total serious harms and the top 5 (stroke, sepsis, pneumonia, venous thromboembolism and lung cancer) accounted for 38.7%.

Conclusion An estimated 795 000 Americans become permanently disabled or die annually across care settings because dangerous diseases are misdiagnosed. Just 15 diseases account for about half of all serious harms, so the problem may be more tractable than previously imagined.

  • diagnostic errors
  • medical error, measurement/epidemiology
  • adverse events, epidemiology and detection

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository. Data on disease incidence used for the study are all publicly available; these public-use datasets and accompanying standard data dictionaries may be found at the URL locations cited in the references list. Additional details regarding sources and methods for diagnostic error and harm rate calculations may be found in three prior publications (PMID: 31535832, 32412440, 36574484), including their associated appendices and online supplemental materials.

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