How implicit bias may lead to medical misdiagnoses

Every year, some 12 million Americans are incorrectly diagnosed by a doctor, and bad judgment is behind much of it. One study analyzed 55,377 medical malpractice claims and found that 86% were due to errors in judgment. Washington residents should know that these errors can stem from gaps in the doctor's knowledge, inattention and, perhaps most crucially, implicit bias.

For example, there is a 9% chance that stroke patients will be misdiagnosed in the ER. However, patients between 18 and 45 years old are 700 times more likely than a 75-year-old patient to be misdiagnosed. In addition, women are about 30% more likely to have their stroke misdiagnosed. With regard to other conditions, women are often mistakenly thought of as having anxiety if the symptoms do not fit familiar patterns.

Conditions can affect people of different races in different ways. For instance, the study found that African Americans with severe depression are four to nine times likelier than white patients to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Bias can also be involved as many doctors look more to the psychotic symptoms than the depressive symptoms in African American patients.

When mental illness is present in patients, doctors may focus on that to the point of ignoring physical symptoms. Patients can bring medical records to avoid any generalizing of symptoms.

Diagnostic errors can form the basis for a case under medical malpractice law, but there must be clear evidence that the doctor did not live up to an objective standard of care for a claim to be effective. Victims need to show, too, that there was a preexisting doctor-patient relationship and that they followed all the doctor's instructions. For this and other reasons, victims may want to retain legal counsel. Malpractice attorneys might have third parties who can conduct an investigation.

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