NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 23, 2009

As many as one-in-six patients treated in Great Britain's government-run National Health Service (NHS) hospitals and general practitioner's (GPs) surgeries are being misdiagnosed, experts have warned.  Doctors were making mistakes in up to 15 percent of cases because they were too quick to judge patients' symptoms, they said, while others were reluctant to ask more senior colleagues for help, according to the Telegraph.

While in most cases the misdiagnosis did not result in the patient suffering serious harm, a sizeable number of the millions of NHS patients were likely to suffer significant health problems as a result, according to figures.  It was said that the number of misdiagnoses was "just the tip of the iceberg," with many people still reluctant to report mistakes by their doctors, according to the Telegraph.

Referencing several sources, the Telegraph found:

  • Cases of misdiagnosis in the NHS were a problem that was not being adequately dealt with.
  • The cases are under-reported and inadequately analyzed.
  • One government commission found that missed or wrong diagnoses were a major cause of complaints to the NHS.
  • Of more than 9,000 complaints analyzed, almost one in 10 related to a delay in diagnosis or the wrong diagnosis being made.
  • Separate research also suggested that one in 10 patients in hospital was harmed because of the care they received.
  • The chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, a campaign group, said his charity received 4,000 calls a year from people who thought that their condition had been misdiagnosed.

The National Patient Safety Association (NPSA) runs a database that records medical errors, patient incidents, mistakes in medical notes and near-misses on a voluntary basis. They found:

  • Between April 2008 and March 2009, there were 39,500 reports of incidents involving clinical assessment.
  • Those included missed or wrong diagnosis but also related to scans that could have been misinterpreted or where the wrong body part was scanned or tests where patients' samples could have been mixed up.

Dr. Kevin Cleary, the medical director of the NPSA, said there were a number of reasons that a diagnosis could be missed or be inaccurate, including a lack of training, test results that were misinterpreted, poor communication and diseases that had similar symptoms.  

Source: Kate Devlin and Rebecca Smith, "One in six NHS patients misdiagnosed,", September 21, 2009.


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