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Medical Tests and Misdiagnosis: The Dangerous Connection

Doctors often rely on high-tech medical tests to detect a range of diseases and conditions. While ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs can provide a wealth of information, they must be performed and interpreted properly to reach the correct diagnosis and course of treatment.

According to recent studies, diagnostic errors are the most common form of medical malpractice, accounting for 20 percent of all medical errors. Even more alarming, a 2009 study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that 28 percent of 583 diagnostic mistakes reported anonymously by doctors were life threatening or resulted in death or permanent disability.

When it comes to medical tests, mistakes can take place at various points in the process. For instance, the doctor may order the incorrect test; the lab may provide results for the wrong patient; or the radiologist may misinterpret an x-ray.

Given the risks of misdiagnosis, patients are encouraged to take an active role in their medical care. Below are five tips from the AHRQ to keep in mind the next time you undergo medical testing:

  • Ask questions before consenting to the test, including why you need a particular test and how it will help you.
  • For tests that are sent to a lab, ask your doctor which lab he or she uses, and why. You may want to know that the doctor chooses a certain lab because he or she has business ties to it. Or, the health plan may require that the tests go there.
  • Check to see that the lab is accredited by a group such as the College of American Pathologists or the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. If you need a mammogram, make sure that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the facility.
  • Do not assume that no news is good news. If you do not hear from your doctor, call to get your test results.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion. If you and/or your doctor believe the test results may not be right, have the test performed again.