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Diagnostic Errors Are the Most Common Reason for Malpractice Suits

Legal Briefs: Diagnostic Errors Are the Most Common Reason for Malpractice Suits

According to a recent 5-year study of closed medical malpractice claims, diagnostic errors are the leading cause of liability claims against primary care doctors and account for the highest proportion of payouts. The study was conducted by Coverys, a Boston-based medical liability insurer, which analyzed over 1800 claims brought against primary care physicians.

Common Errors

The study found that diagnostic errors accounted for 46% of total claims and accounted for the highest proportion of indemnity paid – 68%. Even more alarming, 45% of injuries in diagnosis-related cases resulted in a patient’s death. Cancer was the top condition associated with a diagnostic failure, responsible for 50% of diagnosis-related claims. According to the report, the most commonly missed cancer diagnoses were colorectal (20%), lung (19%), prostate (11%), bladder (9%) and breast (8%). After cancer, the top conditions where diagnostic error occurred were infections (19%), cardiac/vascular (16%), and myocardial infarction-related injuries (11%).

Where did the diagnostic breakdowns take place? The study found 3 areas where errors take place and improvements can be made:

  1. Taking a complete family history and doing a thorough physical exam,

  2. Ordering diagnostic and lab tests, and

  3. Making referrals.


After diagnostic errors, treatment-related claims are the second most common claims against primary care physicians, particularly allegations about the overall management of treatment, followed by failure to treat. Medication-related claims, particularly with high-risk medications such as opioids and anticoagulants, often result in high payouts.

Bottom Line

The study noted that physicians can help protect themselves by being more careful during transitions in care, closing referral loops, and by performing complete, age-appropriate physical exams including cancer screening. 

Ann W. Latner, JD, is a freelance writer and attorney based in New York. She was formerly the director of periodicals at the American Pharmacists Association and editor of Pharmacy Times.

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