Diagnostic errors contribute to about 1 in 10 patient deaths in this country, accounting for 6%-17% of hospital adverse events. In addition to the human toll, such errors take a tremendous economic toll on the U.S. healthcare system. Indeed, the recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, Improving Diagnosis in Health Care, concluded that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences.

As the IOM committee wrote: “Without a dedicated focus on improving diagnosis, these errors will likely worsen as the delivery of health care and the diagnostic process continue to increase in complexity.” As CLN Stat has reported previously, AACC welcomes an enhanced role for laboratory medicine experts to combat potentially devastating diagnostic error.  

In Diagnostic Errors and Clinical Laboratories (35103), a Morning Symposium at the 68th AACC Annual Scientific Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo on August 4, Michael Laposata, MD, PhD, of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, who served on the IOM committee, will explain just how serious the problem is and how laboratorians can contribute to improved diagnostic accuracy.

“I think there is still a significant lack of awareness of the problem,” Laposata told CLN Stat. “If I told you that there were as many deaths from medical errors in the United States annually as there were combat deaths in four years of World War II, you would find it almost unbelievable.” And yet, he said, there are.

“Virtually every adult American has been the victim of a diagnostic error,” he said, “and yet only one out of five knows that to be true. So there is much awareness to be raised.”

Diagnostic errors are compounded by the fact that they delay appropriate treatment. “An incorrect diagnosis sends the patient in the wrong direction at the very beginning and leads to treatments that are either not beneficial or are harmful,” Laposata said.

Clinical laboratories have an important role to play in increasing awareness and improving diagnosis, Laposata stressed. “The right diagnosis begins with the selection of the appropriate tests, then determining what these results mean so appropriate treatments can be provided.”

Clinical laboratorians need to advise physicians in the selection of the appropriate tests and provide expert-driven, narrative interpretations of everything beyond the simplest test results, he continued. “It is essential to take whatever small piece of laboratory medicine we know best and use it to help doctors select the right tests and interpret them correctly.”

However, he said, “Most people in our field find it too challenging to take this step.”

That’s why this session is so important. “If the attendees only learn about the seriousness of the problem of medical error and, specifically, diagnostic error, even if they don't know what to do next, it will still be valuable time spent.”