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Why Doctors Are Sued

By NICHOLAS BAKALAR

New York Times Health & Wellness Blog

What kind of medical error accounts for most malpractice payments: Surgical mistakes? Overdoses? Obstetric errors?

No, no and no. The most common cause of paid claims for malpractice is making errors in diagnosis.

Using the National Practitioner Data Bank, which records actions taken by state licensing authorities against health care practitioners, researchers found that 28.6 percent of malpractice payments are for diagnostic mistakes.

Errors related to treatment and surgery were second and third most common, and all other errors combined — obstetric, medication, monitoring, anesthesia and the rest — accounted for only 20 percent of malpractice payments.

The study, published online in BMJ Quality and Safety, found more than 100,000 payments for diagnostic error from 1986 to 2010. Diagnostic blunders accounted for 33.8 percent of the disabilities and almost 40 percent of the deaths that resulted in malpractice payments.

The senior author, Dr. David E. Newman-Toker, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins, said that “this is a major health problem,” and that physicians, hospitals and insurers all need to contribute to fixing it. “At the policy level,” he said, “there is no institute that views it as their problem.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” he continued. “You can’t get the treatment right if you don’t get the diagnosis right.”

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