Why misdiagnosis can happen in the ICU


The ICU is not immune to trouble.

If your aging parent is in the ICU, you may feel they are safely isolated from risk of misdiagnosis. AARP published an article discussing why misdiagnosis can happen in the ICU.

The article says that,

“Despite all the tests and close monitoring of ICU patients, researchers found that these patients face twice the risk of a fatal diagnostic error as compared with adult hospital patients overall.

In fact, as many as 40,500 critically ill hospital patients die each year because they were misdiagnosed, researchers said. That’s equivalent to the number killed yearly by breast cancer — a finding that the lead author of the study called “surprising and alarming.”

The ICU is,

“a complex, distracting environment in which physicians are bombarded daily with 7,000 or more pieces of information, Winters said. Doctors need better tools to help them sift through all that data “to ensure we’re not ruling out potential diagnoses.”

The key facts about why misdiagnosis can happen in the ICU include:

  • “Four medical conditions were most commonly misdiagnosed: Heart attack; pulmonary embolism (artery blockage in the lungs); pneumonia; and aspergillosis, a fungal infection that most commonly affects those with a weakened immune system. These four conditions accounted for about one-third of all illnesses doctors failed to detect.
  • More than one in four patients had at least one missed diagnosis at death.
  • Serious errors in 8 percent of patientsmay have either caused or directly contributed to the individual’s death.
  • Infections and blood vessel blockages, such as heart attack and accounted for more than three-quartersof what the researchers termed “fatal flaws.”
  • The problems the study found were errors of omission — “not something you did, but something you didn’t do” — study author Bradford Winters, M.D., associate professor of critical care medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told The Atlantic magazine. Had the correct diagnosis been made, he said, patient treatment might have been changed and lives potentially saved.”

Read the full article here.

If your aging parent is in the ICU, take care to understand why misdiagnosis can happen in the ICU. Your important work then is to watch and ask questions, doing everything in your power to ensure your aging parents do not fall victim to misdiagnosis.

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