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Diagnosis By Computer: An Invitation To Medical Malpractice

Steven E. North, Esq.
Shari James, Paralegal


With ever increasing healthcare cost, hospitals have adopted computer software programs to diagnose medical conditions with the belief that this practice will lessen the frequency of medical errors and save money.

In the November 18, 2013, Wall Street Journal article, "The Biggest Mistake Doctors Make", it was noted that medical errors lead to more than 160,000 permanent injuries and deaths each year. The main source of error arises from failing to properly diagnose, which involves: failing to order diagnostic tests; to take a full history from the patient; to perform thorough examinations; and to refer the patient to an appropriate specialist.

To deal with this problem, medical facilities have adopted systems to assist the medical community in diagnosing patients. One such method is the use of computer programs to automatically review medical records for red flags and note them, and to suggest br oader differential diagnoses - so that physicians are not "stuck" with a narrowly focused and biased view. As with medical students, this concept is to teach physicians to be more receptive to patient input and not to blindly focus on a single diagnosis which can lead to an erroneous conclusion. However, reliance on the computer to "red flag" a case can be disastrous - if the computer default of failsafe program is faulty, then the patient's wellbeing is at stake.

Dependence on "computer diagnosis" is dangerous. Doctors and facilities that rely on the computer to make diagnoses face legal recourse when they "miss the mark". For example, the modern electrocardiogram machine interprets the heart tracings and automatically prints out a report as to whether, according to its "brain", the tracings are abnormal. But absent a review and interpretation of those tracings by a skilled cardiologist, gross errors have been made.

When the human aspect of medical care is not at the forefront of patient treatment, and instead reliance is placed on automation to diagnose the malady - serious errors occur. Until the medical community is able to strike the right balance between "hands on medicine" and reliance upon technology, medical malpractice lawsuits will result.

The "machine" may be able to objectively measure and record data but the interpretation of that data requires the direct input of the physician.