The prospect of walking into a hospital or clinic and receiving a misdiagnosis is something that fills most patients with dread. An incorrect medical assessment can be a hassle, even in the best case scenario.
At the other end of the spectrum, diagnostic errors can be expensive, dangerous, and even deadly.
This is, however, a reality for 12 million Americans seeking outpatient care yearly.
Some of the conditions practitioners miss may carry grave consequences without a timely diagnosis—such as in the treatment of cancer, heart attack, and stroke.
One John Hopkins study revealed that, out of 6,000 patients across the United States, health practitioners misdiagnosed one out of every 71 cancer cases. The same report showed that one out of five cancers were also misclassified. This can result in dangerously delayed or ineffective treatment.
Known as the “big three” within the medical community, the top conditions subject to misdiagnosis are cancers, vascular events, and infections.
In another evaluation of 538 patient diagnostic errors, 28 percent were life threatening, resulted in death, or created permanent disability.
Medical misdiagnosis has become one of the leading causes of death in the United States. One estimate suggests up to 250,000 U.S. deaths per year may be attributed to mistakes in the diagnostic process.
Concurrently, faulty assessments are costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars. In 2009, a report put the cost of unnecessary medical services resulting from misdiagnosis at $750 billion annually.
Even today, research points to wasteful clinical services as a critical driver of excess health spending, accounting for upwards of 15.7 percent of total national health spending.
When it comes to diagnosing health issues, there are multiple areas where things can go wrong. Former John Hopkins risk manager Danielle Miller is a registered nurse and the CEO of Stars and Stripes Consulting LLC. She told The Epoch Times multiple factors across the entire spectrum of health care services are contributing to the misdiagnosis problem.
“Error in diagnostic testing results, incomplete evaluation or history of the patient. Premature diagnosis made without completing appropriate diagnostic testing, and evaluation due to guidelines and teaching … just to name a few,” Miller said.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which threw another wrench into an industry already struggling with accurate diagnostics.
“Telemedicine was mass adopted in a short time frame during the pandemic. This led to many incomplete and error prone systems being used,” Miller explained, adding that “there was little to no widespread knowledge or education for appropriate evaluation and diagnosis with telehealth.”
Though for some, diagnostic errors during the pandemic were not made over the phone and resulted in months of crippling medical bills and tragedy.
In the city of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Dawn Gratke watched a misdiagnosis nightmare unfold over nearly four months, ultimately costing her husband his life.
“I couldn’t believe it then. I still can’t believe it,” Gratke told The Epoch Times with a heavy sigh.
In September 2021, Gratke was convinced her husband John had gotten “some kind of bug.” He had classic flu symptoms, including fever and body aches, which Dawn was helping him manage at home since they did not appear to be serious. He had no respiratory symptoms at all, she said.
Then on the evening of Sept. 25, John went into cardiac arrest at their home.
In a panic, she called 911. Paramedics were able to stabilize John after they arrived and rushed him to a nearby hospital.
Gratke drove to the hospital along with their equally distraught teenage daughter, who had witnessed the horrifying event. Within a few hours of arrival, John was put on a ventilator—despite the lack of respiratory symptoms—after the staff induced a medical coma.
The following day, John tested positive for COVID-19. Dawn and her daughter also tested positive for the virus.
“It was all about COVID after that. Everything was COVID. They didn’t even look at other possibilities,” Gratke said.
John remained in a coma until Oct. 11, when he slowly regained consciousness. The long recovery process began, but his wife noted the doctors still wouldn’t discuss what else might have caused John to go into cardiac arrest on that fateful September night.
“The rest played out like a bad dream,” she said.
John’s recovery was slow and then began to backslide near the end of October, when he presented with flu-like symptoms again.
“I helped roll him on his side one day because he said he was in pain, and there was a nasty infected bed sore,” Gratke remarked.
Despite what Gratke maintained was an “obvious infection,” the attending physician disagreed, concluding the flu symptoms were more likely to be “long COVID” related. Undeterred, she pressed for more tests, determined to get to the bottom of what was happening with her husband.
After diagnosing a staff infection more than a week later, John was treated with antibiotics. However, it proved too little too late. The infection had become systemic, and Gratke was helpless to watch her husband’s slow decline. It took two agonizing months for John to die amid a slew of failed attempts to stop the infection. The delayed diagnosis proved deadly for a man with an already weakened immune system.
The same week the hospital began treating John with antibiotics, Gratke said the doctor admitted there was a possibility her husband had been fighting a different, non-COVID-19 related infection that had gone undetected upon his admission in September.
On Jan. 8, 2022, Gratke felt her husband squeeze her hand for the last time. Her teenage daughter and oldest son, who had returned from college, were in the hospital elevator, on their way to see their father as he quietly slipped away.
“My husband was essentially murdered,” she said, “They didn’t follow protocols and they misdiagnosed his symptoms.”
Gratke and her family are now suing the hospital for malpractice. She requested the hospital’s name be omitted from the article on the advice of her attorney.
One third of all malpractice cases resulting in death or permanent disability come from a delayed or inaccurate diagnosis. Further, missed infections account for nearly 14 percent of the aforementioned “big three.”
In a 2021 report published by the National Library of Medicine, the diagnostic process within the context of COVID-19 was admitted to be “complex and challenging” for health care professionals. It further noted the evolving virus can contribute to “confusion and increase risk of mistakes.”
“Although we have improved our capacity to make a more precise diagnosis, we still don’t have an explicit number of patients who are hospitalized for COVID alone,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine and infectious diseases, told The Epoch Times.
He explained that despite improvements in testing since the onset of the pandemic, it remains problematic in some cases to determine to what extent COVID-19 plays a primary or secondary role in acute illness.
Concurrently, the meter is running and the cost of diagnostic errors continues to add up for Americans. Since 2011, family insurance premiums have risen 47 percent. Some industry insiders believe malpractice claims are contributing to this trend.
“These two findings are related. Every misdiagnosis leads to an increase in overall health care costs,” attorney Collen Clark, founder of Schmidt & Clark, LLP, told The Epoch Times.
Clark’s firm works closely with medical malpractice claims, which she says there are a lot of these days.
“Misdiagnosis leads to higher medical costs and higher income loss. It also negatively impacts insurance providers.”
A study examining 24 years of U.S. malpractice claims revealed diagnostic error payouts totaled $38.8 billion between 1986 and 2010.
Up to 18,000 claims are filed every year, with an average payout of more than $10,000 per lawsuit.
Though for people like Gratke, the price of health care isn’t nearly as painful as the cost.
“It cost me everything, losing John,” she said.
Reporting from The Epoch Times.