Many patients in intensive care units are being wrongly diagnosed, according to a study in a UK hospital. Some are dying because doctors fail to spot major conditions such as heart attacks, cancer and pulmonary embolism. The reason, experts say, is not incompetence but that so few post-mortems are now performed that doctors cannot learn from their mistakes.

Fang Gao Smith, a consultant in intensive care medicine at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, and her team checked the accuracy of diagnoses by comparing post-mortem results with patients’ medical records. In 39 per cent of cases, they found major problems had been missed.

The problem is not limited to one hospital, or to the UK. Gao Smith says her findings are consistent with other studies done in Europe and the US. She thinks doctors place too much faith in sophisticated scanners when making diagnoses, and are failing to learn from their mistakes because fewer and fewer autopsies are being done, both in the UK and the US.

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