The National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) was established in 1986 to serve as a repository for information relating to medical malpractice payments. The goal was and continues to be to identify the types and magnitude of medical error and enhance patient safety.

A team of Johns Hopkins researchers has scrutinized NPDB data from the tool’s inception, looking at the details relating to more than 350,000 malpractice payments. A central conclusion of that inquiry is that diagnostic error is persistently at the apex of health care concerns.

“Diagnostic error and its associated harm is a major public health problem,” states the report, which appears online in BMJ’s Quality and Safety in Health Care medical journal.

As to the magnitude of that problem, the Hopkins researchers say that it is both highly significant and underreported. In fact, they note, errors in diagnosis — defined in the study as missed, delayed or flatly wrong diagnoses — are the leading cause of malpractice deaths, taking the lives of more patients each year than do treatment mistakes and surgical errors.

The study team counted more than 100,000 diagnostic errors in the NPDB, noting that they resulted in as many as 80,000 patient deaths. The authors state that about one in every 20 autopsies conducted in American hospitals discloses a mistake in diagnosis leading to death that could have been prevented in the absence of medical negligence.

The NPDB data reveal that death occurs about 41 percent of the time as a result of diagnostic error, with materially significant injuries occurring about 17 percent of the time.

Source: MedPage Today, “Diagnosis error is costliest medical mistake,” Kathleen Struck, April 22, 2013