How Often Do Doctors Misdiagnose?

How Often Do Doctors Misdiagnose?

Paul Sloane 09/10/2019 3

We tend to revere our clinicians as towering experts in their fields. So how often do you think doctors misdiagnose? How often might your doctor tell you that you have some illness or condition, but it's not right? For example, a doctor might diagnose the flu, but the patient really has something much more serious - like Lyme Disease.

Dr. Elizabeth Burton, a medical scholar and director of autopsy pathology at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas says experts find a 40% misdiagnosis rate. Out of those 40%, about 10 to 12% are really serious - some resulting in avoidable death. We know this because autopsies reveal the real causes of death.

Dr. Mark Graber, Chief of medical services at the Long Island Veterans hospital, studies the issue of misdiagnosis and sees the problem partly stemming from overconfidence.

The problem is widespread outside of medicine. Confident experts, professionals and managers are quick to jump to the wrong conclusions. If we raise our price and see sales go down then we automatically conclude that the first led to the second. But we may well have misdiagnosed the problem. There may have been a completely different reason why sales declined - like competition or seasonal factors.

Einstein is reputed to have said, 'If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes analysing the problem and 5 minutes coming up with a solution.' We tend to do the opposite. We assume we know the cause and then charge ahead designing remedies for the wrong issue. We need to find the root cause of the problem before even starting to think about possible solutions.

Air travel has dramatically improved its safety record over the last 50 years (much more so than hospitals say). The main reason is that after every plane crash there is a thorough investigation by experts to determine the exact cause of the crash. The findings and recommendations for improvement are then shared worldwide.

Most people in middle to senior positions in organisations are charged with solving problems. Yet they are generally not trained in problem analysis techniques. Consequently they often fall prey to making assumptions, jumping to conclusions and applying the wrong remedies.

I teach problem analysis methods and the ones I find most helpful are Why, Why? Six Serving Men, Fishbone Diagram and the Lotus Blossom technique. They and more are covered in detail in this online training course.

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  • Andreas Kemp

    Even highly experienced and competent doctors make diagnostic errors.

  • Cloe Nicole

    Doctors are not perfect. Errors in test results can happen because of flawed equipment or human error.

  • Ryan Atterton

    Misdiagnosis in a hospital emergency room can be caused by the pressure and reduced time available to look into various differential diagnoses.

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Paul Sloane

Innovation Expert

Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.

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