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The diagnosis is cancer. Wait, no it isn’t.

Let’s say you’re in the doctor’s office. You were called in to follow up on a biopsy that was conducted a few days ago. The doctor sits you down and explains the difficult news: you have cancer. Thoughts race through your mind: concerns about yourself, your family, your finances, your future.

Then, a few days later, the phone rings again. It’s your doctor, with good news. You don’t have cancer. The biopsy results were accidentally switched with another patient’s, and you’re in the clear. The other patient, unfortunately, was given a false negative, and now has to come to terms with a new reality.

For many across the U.S., this isn’t a far-fetched nightmare scenario, but rather, an actual occurrence. According to a recent article by the New York Times, recent data suggests that there may be thousands of cases per year in which cancer biopsy samples are misfiled or otherwise mixed up, though there are no concrete numbers.

When misdiagnosis presents a serious problem

While the above example may seem innocuous—after all, the mistake was corrected and both patients were quickly informed—that’s not always the case. The Times notes of a case from 2011 in which two men were diagnosed with prostate cancer and had their prostates removed, only to later be told that they did not have cancer at all.

According to research, of the more than 10,000 biopsies studied between 2011 and 2015, only 27 were found to have been mislabeled, and 31 out of 6,733 blood samples had been switched. While this represents a small percentage, it is still a preventable human error that may lead to serious patient injuries.

Preventing mistakes is possible

There is a way to human-proof biopsy and other medical testing: implementing a high-tech fingerprint-type tracking method using each patient’s DNA. However, implementation would cost about $300 per sample, which is part of the reason why hospitals are slow to adopt it.

However, medical institutions are grappling with the problem nevertheless. For example, in 2015, a man at Chesapeake Urology was diagnosed with prostate cancer after a biopsy. As part of his treatment plan, his prostate was removed. Shortly afterward, it was revealed that he was misdiagnosed due to a lab mix-up.

Now, Chesapeake Urology mandates the DNA double-check test.

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