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    Strategies to avoid diagnostic errors

    By the numbers, it’s estimated that every single one of us will encounter a serious diagnostic error over our lifetimes. Gordon Schiff, M.D., who studies medical errors, seems to have already surpassed his allotment.

    Dr. Schiff, who was slightly out of breath when he spoke with Dermatology Times, says he suffers from an unusual form of pneumonia that was misdiagnosed by multiple doctors. It took eight weeks to get a correct diagnosis.

    What goes wrong when this kind of thing happens? Plenty, says Dr. Schiff, who discussed medical errors in an interview before his presentation about misdiagnoses at the summer meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in Boston.

    “Diagnosis errors are common, often not even recognized, and there is a lot of ground for improvement on multiple fronts,” says Dr. Schiff, who’s associate director of the Center for Patient Safety Research and Practice at the Brigham and Women's Hospital Division of General Medicine, safety director at the Harvard Center for Primary Care Academic Improvement Collaborative, and associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School

    Indeed, Johns Hopkins University researchers estimated in a study last May1 that medical errors as a whole account for 10% of all deaths in the United States, making them the third leading cause of death.

    The world of skin care is no stranger to diagnosis errors, Dr. Schiff says.

    “It’s something that’s probably obvious to all the dermatologists every day,” he says. “They’re getting a lot of patients coming from primary care doctors who are misdiagnosed: I’m calling things acne; they’re saying it’s more serious. I’m saying something is cancer; they’re saying it’s not.”

    NEXT: What to do?

    Randy Dotinga
    Randy Dotinga is a medical writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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