Telemedicine and the risks of diagnostic errors

Have you ever had a phone or video call with your doctor? So-called telemedicine has been an option offered for a number of years, but its popularity has gone way up since the beginning of 2020 (when Covid-19 reached U.S. shores). Now, it seems that many people visiting the doctor for non-emergency care are doing so over video chat or on the phone.

While this is a great way to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19, it isn’t typically a great way to practice medicine (for anything other than minor and routine medical concerns). One of the most serious concerns with telemedicine is the risk of physician error resulting in patient harm. Doctors conducting these visits need to be particularly vigilant in order to avoid committing medical malpractice.

Diagnostic and prescription errors

The two most likely problems with a e-visit are that the patient will be misdiagnosed or that the doctor will prescribe the wrong medication or dose. Statistics further highlight the problem. A prominent medical malpractice insurer recently conducted an analysis of telemedicine-related claims submitted between 2014 and 2018. Of those claims, 66 percent were related to diagnostic mistakes.

When a doctor misdiagnoses a patient or fails to diagnose a medical condition, the best-case scenario is that the patient simply gets delayed care and suffers no ill effects. Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out this way. Missing or misdiagnosing a serious medical condition like cancer, heart disease or stroke could waste precious time that patients simply don’t have. Delayed treatment could be fatal.

How can serious errors be avoided?

Let’s face it: doctors are often distracted and not paying full attention, even during in-person visits. The problem is likely to be worse on a phone call or videoconference. But if healthcare providers are offering this service, they need to be prepared to give patients their full attention and to follow up on any symptoms or medical information that could be serious. In other words, doctors need to work especially hard to be good doctors when their patients have no choice but to consult via telemedicine.