Diagnostic mistakes made on adult patients in US Intensive Care Units contribute to or cause as many as 40,500 deaths each year -- about as many lives as claimed by breast cancer, a new study has found.

Researchers with the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality also determined that adults treated in ICUs are twice as likely to suffer a potentially fatal misdiagnosis from doctors as those in other hospital settings.

Pulmonary embolisms, heart attacks, pneumonia, and aspergillosis, a fungal infection, were among the medical conditions most commonly missed by doctors.

These conditions together accounted for about a third of all illness that went undetected, the study found.

The findings, recently released in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety, were based in part on the review of 31 studies and more than 5,800 autopsies from a wide range of Intensive Care Units.

More than one in four of the ICU patients had at least one missed diagnosis at death, and 8 percent had a diagnostic error that was serious enough to cause or directly contribute to death.

The study's lead author, Bradford Winters, M.D., Ph.D., said the findings show that "misdiagnosis is alarmingly common" in acute care environment and that, to date, there has been very little effort to determine the "root causes and effective interventions."

Added Winters: “It may be counterintuitive to think that the patients who are the most closely monitored and frequently tested are more commonly misdiagnosed, but the ICU is a very complex environment."

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