Intensive care units (ICUs) are designed to treat patients who have life-threatening symptoms or serious illnesses. Patients who are housed in the ICU are constantly monitored and receive more staff attention and testing than other hospital patients. However, many ICU patients die.
High death rates in the ICU are to be expected. After all, most patients who are admitted to the ICU are critically ill. However, a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School has found that about 40,500 ICU deaths a year may be due to misdiagnosis. To put this in perspective, about the same number of people die from ICU misdiagnosis as die from breast cancer each year.
Doctors at the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality reviewed 5,863 autopsies to discover diagnostic errors in deceased ICU patients. They found that more than one in every four deceased patients (28%) had at least one missed diagnosis at the time of death. In about eight percent of these patients, the diagnostic error was serious enough that it either caused or contributed to the patient’s death. In fact, when compared to hospital patients overall, ICU patients are at twice the risk of suffering a potentially fatal misdiagnosis.
The most common misdiagnoses, included:
- Heart attack
- Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs)
- Aspergillosis (a fungal infection)
These illnesses combined accounted for one-third of misdiagnoses.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to prevent breast cancer deaths. If even a portion of that money was put into increased hospital staffing, diagnostic checklists, and better diagnostic efforts, could thousands more lives be saved?