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The Role Of Doctor Bias In Misdiagnosis

Doctor bias is an unfortunate reality in the medical world. It is a topic that we have addressed here several times–including the bias that LGBT+ patients may face, and the bias in pharmaceutical testing and medical treatment which affects women. Just how much do these biases ultimately affect medical care? New research out of Johns Hopkins has found that physician bias has a serious, widespread impact on diagnostic accuracy.

Misdiagnosis is a widespread problem in our health care system. According to the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality’s Center for Diagnostic Excellence, over 12 million Americans receive an incorrect diagnosis annually. The most common reason for misdiagnosis was found to be “bad judgment.” The Armstrong Institute found that judgment errors accounted for 86% of 55,377 medical malpractice claims in which misdiagnosis led to death or disability.

One of the factors in “bad judgment” is physician bias. This occurs when a doctor’s s unconscious assumptions get in the way of objectively gathering or assessing a patient. Findings on stroke misdiagnosis highlight just how these biases can affect diagnostic accuracy. Anyone visiting an emergency room for a stroke faces a 9% chance of misdiagnosis. If you are young and female, this risk skyrockets. The 18-45 age group is seven times more likely than a 75-year-old to be misdiagnosed when experiencing a stroke. Female patients, at any age, face a 30% risk of misdiagnosis for the same. These findings are in line with earlier research we discussed when examining gender bias and heart attack: because female patients often present with different symptoms than their male counterparts, their heart attacks are much more likely to go undetected. Heart attack and stroke are among the leading causes of death in the United States. 

Race also plays a factor in physician bias. African Americans with severe depression are 4 to 9 to times more likely to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia compared to white Americans showing the same cluster of symptoms. As a result, they may not get the correct pharmaceuticals to treat their depression and will suffer the unnecessary side effects of schizophrenia medications.

How does one avoid becoming the victim of doctor bias? Researchers offered the following advice to patients.

  • Bring any relevant medical records with you to your appointment. This can allow the physician more time to focus on specific rather than general symptoms.
  • Ask ‘What is the most worrisome thing this could be and why isn’t it that?’ Researchers stressed that attributing a symptom to stress or anxiety can be a default position when a doctor is stumped. If your doctor is unable to support an opinion or treats you in a dismissive manner, this is a sign that the diagnosis may be a snap judgment and not the result of a thorough examination and consideration of your symptoms.
  • If you are in doubt, ask. If you find that you have concerns about a diagnosis, ask the doctor if there could be more than one thing going on. If your symptoms persist, researchers urge you to revisit your doctor and discuss the possibility that a wrong diagnosis could be the root cause.
  • Don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. If a physician dismisses your concerns and you are not satisfied, don’t hesitate to seek the opinion of a different doctor or specialist.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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