Accusations of diagnostic mistakes — alleged errors tied to failing to make an appropriate referral to a specialist, rushing through a physical exam, or neglecting to follow up on an abnormal test result — are by far the most common reason that Massachusetts primary care doctors get sued for malpractice, a new study found. A Brigham and Women's Hospital study published last Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine found that 72 percent of the time, malpractice suits against primary care physicians centered around misdiagnoses.
"We've been hearing that diagnostic mistakes are a real problem in primary care practices," said study leader Dr. Gordon Schiff. What was surprising, he added, was the "huge percentage" of lawsuits that stemmed from such mistakes.
Schiff and his colleagues examined records from about 550 malpractice lawsuits involving Massachusetts primary care physicians from 2005 to 2009. They found that 190 included an accusation of a cancer misdiagnosis and an additional 108 claims alleged a doctor missed either heart disease, blood vessel diseases, infections, or strokes. More than 35 percent of cases involving primary care doctors were settled by the malpractice insurers compared with 21 percent of those involving specialists. In addition, 1.6 percent of the lawsuits resulted in a verdict against the primary care doctor compared to 0.9 percent of the lawsuits against specialists.