While no exact data is available, it’s estimated between 40,000 and 80,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year due to misdiagnosis. Research shows up to 160,000 more people suffer serious complications after doctors either fail to recognize or wrongly diagnose illnesses.

A recent study was published in the journal Diagnosis after researchers analyzed more than 11,000 medical malpractice claims from an extensive database, including cases from around the country.

What are the “Big Three” conditions?

Misdiagnosis is the most common medical mistake, and medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Three types of conditions are responsible for nearly 75% of all claims. They are:

  • Infections
  • Cancers
  • Vascular events

The remaining one-quarter of all claims result from 15 other conditions, including heart attacks, meningitis, pneumonia, blood clots, and cancers of the skin, prostate and breast.

Missed cancer diagnoses lead to the highest mortality rate

More than one-third of errors related to cancer misdiagnoses resulted in death or permanent disability. The rate is lower for vascular diseases at 22% and 13.5% for infections. Most errors happened in an emergency setting or an outpatient situation.

More cancer-related misdiagnoses occurred at outpatient clinics, while vascular and infection mistakes tended to happen more often during emergency care. Researchers say their findings show that most of the errors were the result of clinical judgment failures.

Researchers say a lack of funding remains an issue

The study’s authors say their results do not provide a quick or easy fix but do offer a starting point to address the problem. However, they say the solution will not be cheap. They note that the federal government currently spends more money on smallpox research – a disease that was eradicated 50 years ago – than on funding to fix diagnostic errors.