A stethoscope on top of paperwork.

Although doctors are trained to recognize symptoms and make a diagnosis, mistakes can and do happen. Some surveys indicate that diagnostic error is a patient’s greatest fear entering the health-care system for treatment.

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Failure to properly diagnose, delay in a diagnosis, or an incorrect diagnosis can have traumatic consequences. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported the results of a study indicating that around 150,000 Americans are misdiagnosed each year, and one-third of them end up dying or debilitated as a result.

The same study revealed that between 40,000 and 80,000 Americans die annually from either missed or delayed diagnoses (i). Late diagnoses can give rise to serious consequences because the disease or condition may no longer be treatable. Diseases and infections that progress undetected may reach their more advanced stages, diminishing the likelihood of successful patient recovery. Any sort of delay in treatment can lead to irreversible health effects.

Common Causes of Failure or Delay in Diagnosis

A doctor reviewing an X-ray in a personal injury case.

  • Emergency Room (ER) Misdiagnosis
  • Results of tests not reported
  • Tests not performed
  • X-rays or mammograms read incorrectly
  • Lab results read incorrectly
  • Symptoms identified by doctor but never referred to specialist
  • Failure to follow up on diagnostic tests

For life threatening diseases, early detection and diagnosis is essential. If discovered at an early stage, many diseases can be cured or successfully treated.

Unfortunately, there are many severe diseases that often go undiagnosed, such as:

  • Heart attack and Stroke
  • Appendicitis
  • Diabetes
  • Bacterial meningitis
  • Cancer (breast cancer, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer)

A failure to diagnose or a misdiagnosis of a severe condition is more common than one might think. In fact, roughly 40% of medical malpractice claims are a result of failures to diagnose a condition. Additionally, a study, published in the online journal Cancer reported that doctors misdiagnose approximately 12% of cancer cases. According to the numbers reported in the study, because there were about 1.5 million new cases of cancer diagnosed last year, approximately 180,000 patients were misdiagnosed. Given this information, it is obvious that seeking a second medical opinion can be a wise decision that patients should pursue in order to more fully understand their health.


  • (i) CBS News. 2013.