Study: Virginia Doctors Misdiagnose Nearly 1 in 6 Patients

According to the Washington Post, recent studies reflect significant numbers of physicians are misdiagnosing patients, leading to consider harm to patients.

A 2009 report funded by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that 28 percent of 583 diagnostic mistakes reported anonymously by doctors were life-threatening or had resulted in death or permanent disability. A meta-analysis published last year in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety found that fatal diagnostic errors in U.S. intensive care units appear to equal the 40,500 deaths that result each year from breast cancer. And a new study of 190 errors at a VA hospital system in Texas found that many errors involved common diseases such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections; 87 percent had the potential for “considerable to severe harm” including “inevitable death.

The problem is not new.

In 1991, a groundbreaking study by Harvard Medical School reported a misdiagnosis in over 14% of doctor erros, and three-quarters of these errors involved negligence, such as a failure by doctors to follow up on test results.

Our experience representing patients in serious cases of medical injury supports the statistics.

In the past five years, we have seen the following:

  • OGBYN fails to notify Virginia woman her tests reflect cervical cancer – woman doesn’t get treatment until a year later and dies;
  • RADIOLOGISTS fails to diagnose aneurysm and patient is let go from the ER, dying 12 hours later;
  • NURSING HOME doctor fails to appreciate signs of severe sepsis diagnosing patient as having simple infection –  death results;
  • ONCOLOGISTS says a tumor is merely a CYST and cancer spreads – delay in cancer treatment;
  • RADIOLOGIST misdiagnoses kidney cancer as a cyst;
  • SURGEON fails to diagnose compartment syndrome causing permanent nerve damage and dropped foot to young Iraqi Freedom veteran;
  • EMERGENCY ROOM fails to diagnose and treat patient for a stroke – paralysis results.

Frankly, I am not surprised that researchers discovered mistakes happen in 14% of all patient care.

Despite their prevalence and impact, such mistakes have been largely ignored. They were mentioned only twice in the Institute of Medicine’s landmark 1999 report on medical errors, an omission some patient safety experts attribute to difficulties measuring such mistakes, the lack of obvious solutions and generalized resistance to addressing the problem.

So why does it happen?

Is it simply because some diseases are so rare they cannot be diagnosed? Some cancer so small they can’t be seen? Or is it a cultural problem where doctors are rewarded  financially by seeing more patients and taking less time to treat and diagnose? And what can families do when it does happen?

There are a number of options:

  • Patients can speak to a lawyer to review their rights.
  • Patients can call the hospital or doctor and request a change.
  • Patients can notify the Virginia Board of Medicine to file a complaint. 

None of these options return the years and treatment options lost because of this misdiagnosis. None of those options restore health, or bring mothers back to children, or sisters back to families. Mistakes happen too often. Whether it is the fault of the provider, or the risk of medical practice, it is always a tragedy.

Lauren Ellerman
Lauren Ellerman

In 2011, Lauren Ellerman was named "Young Lawyer of the Year" by the Roanoke Bar Association for her work in the community. To speak with Lauren about your personal injury case, contact her at