A new study estimates that in the United States, some 251,000 deaths per year occur because of errors in medical care. This makes medical errors the third leading cause of death, only after heart disease and cancer. Though this is alarming and concerning, it highlights a much larger problem, as many medical errors aren’t lethal. One proposal defines a medical error as “an act of omission or commission in planning or execution that contributes or could contribute to an unintended result.”
By this definition, failures in laboratory tests certainly qualify. Lab test failures contribute to delayed or wrong diagnoses and unnecessary costs and care. For context, a 2014 study estimated that diagnostic errors happen about 12 million times per year in U.S. outpatients. This represents 1 in 20 adults. Recently the Institute of Medicine concluded that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their life. Errors related to lab tests are more common than you might think.
More than thirteen billion tests are performed in over 250,000 certified clinical laboratories each year in the U.S., making it likely everyone will each have at least one test done in their life. These include tests for genetic disorders, lead poisoning, and diabetes, and the results routinely guide diagnostic and therapeutic decisions.