Study reveals high rates of misdiagnosis by primary care doctors


For decades, reputable medical journals have studied the rates and consequences of medical errors that occur in hospitals. But few major studies have been conducted focusing on medical errors made by primary care physicians, who are often a patient’s first (and sometimes only) source of medical advice.

Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine did publish a study on primary care physicians, and the news isn’t good. According to the study, primary care doctors in outpatient settings often fail to diagnose serious conditions, including cancer, congestive heart failure and pneumonia. In many cases, misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis can result in fatal consequences.

Why are these diagnostic errors so common in outpatient settings? According to researchers, many of the mistakes stemmed from a doctor’s failure to properly examine their patients or to compile accurate medical histories.

The study also revealed that primary care doctors commonly forgot to complete critical steps in patient care. As a result, many patients had medical emergencies within days of the leaving the doctor’s office; emergencies that could have been averted if those steps had not been forgotten.

Failure to correctly diagnose a disease is always serious. When the patient is suffering from a disease that is not life-threatening, misdiagnosis results in unnecessary and prolonged suffering. But with diseases like cancer or congestive heart failure, any loss of time in identifying and treating the illness could lead to irreversible health damage or even death.

Hopefully, studies like this will be a wake-up call for the entire medical community. Patients put a lot of trust in their primary care physicians, and it is time to make sure that this trust is not misplaced.

Source:, “Study shows docs often fail to detect pneumonia and other serious conditions during exams,” James T. Mulder, Feb. 26, 2013

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