A study from international healthcare journal BMJ Quality & Safety suggests that doctors make more mistakes than we realize when it comes to identifying our medical conditions. Medical errors happen with astonishing frequency, but the results of this study illustrate that misdiagnosis is far more common than the average American probably thinks. Each year in the United States, 12,000,000 patients are misdiagnosed.

Statistically, that means one in 20 patients walks away from their doctor’s office falsely believing that their medical conditions have been addressed. They take medications or undergo treatments that are ineffective, or even harmful, while whatever their real aliments are continue to corrode their health.

The Real Cost of Misdiagnosis

My office once represented a gentleman for whom not receiving the correct diagnosis proved catastrophic. An injury sent this man to the emergency room, where he received a chest X-ray that could have saved his life – but didn’t. The X-ray showed doctors an early-stage cancerous mass in the patient’s lung. It was small, but distinct enough that the radiologist noted the finding in his chart. The problem is that the doctors failed to inform this patient of the mass or even refer him to another doctor for further testing.

By the time our client noticed symptoms – like shortness of breath and a cough that wouldn’t go away – years had passed. The small mass of early-stage cancer cells had become a large mass, and the cancer had metastasized to his brain and lymph nodes. In the time between the first X-ray indicating a mass and when cancer finally was diagnosed, the mass grew drastically from 0.7 x 0.7 cm to 3.25 x 2.5 cm. What had once been a very treatable early form of cancer that expert oncologists stated could have been surgically removed with a high probability of success now had become a terminal illness. At 50 years old, this man had literally decades of his life ahead of him, and he left behind a grieving family that included a daughter. The last two years of his life were full of suffering from both the cancer and the ultimately futile treatments to fight the disease.

This case made a lasting impression on all of us at the law firm. When I hear about medical misdiagnoses, I always think of this man and his bereaved family. Had his doctors not failed to diagnose his cancer when it first appeared on diagnostic tests, he could still be here today. Unfortunately, it seems that worst case scenarios like this happen far too often. As many as half of these diagnostic mistakes contributed to serious medical conditions, an ABC News source reported. Two of our client’s symptoms, cough and shortness of breath, are among the most frequently misdiagnosed symptoms, according to CBS News.

As patients, these study results should shock us. We trust our doctors. We certainly want to think that they have a better success rate in at least determining what’s wrong with us – after all, it’s nearly impossible to successfully treat a condition if the medical professionals can’t even figure out what the condition is. We all want to believe that the staff at our local hospital would think to mention to us a cancerous mass revealed on an X-ray, or that our primary care doctors would do another test to better make sure our abdominal pain and shortness of breath results from the medical condition they think it does. This study is a revelation that something in the field of healthcare needs to change. Otherwise, who knows when we, or our families, will become one of the 12,000,000 patients whom the medical system fails?