BMJ Qual Saf. 2023 Jul 17:bmjqs-2021-014130. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2021-014130. Online ahead of print.
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.