Why You Will Experience a Diagnostic Error

By ThinkReliability Staff

On September 22, 2015, the Institute of Medicine released a report entitled “Improving Diagnosis in Health Care“. The report was the result of a request in 2013 by the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to undertake a study on diagnostic error. The tasking to the committee formed by the IOM matched the three step problem-solving process: first, to define the problem by examining “the burden of harm and economic costs associated with diagnostic error”; second, to analyze the issue by evaluating diagnostic error; third, to provide recommendations as “action items for key stakeholders”.

The burden of harm determined to result from diagnostic errors is significant. Diagnostic errors are estimated to contribute to about 10% of hospital deaths, and 6-17% of hospital adverse events, clearly impacting patient safety. Not only patient safety is impacted, however. Diagnostic errors are the leading type of paid malpractice claims. They also impact patient services, leading to ineffective, delayed, or unnecessary treatment. This then impacts schedule and labor as additional treatment is typically required. The report found that, in a “conservative” estimate, 5% of adults who seek outpatient care in the United States experience a diagnostic error each year and determined that it is likely that everyone in the US will likely experience a meaningful diagnostic error in their lifetime.

The report also provided an analysis of issues within the diagnostic process (to learn more about the diagnostic process, see our previous blog) that can lead to diagnostic errors. Errors that occur at any step of the diagnostic process can lead to diagnostic errors. If a provider receives inaccurate or incomplete patient information, due to inadequate time or communication with a patient, compatibility issues with health information technology, or an ineffective physical exam, making a correct diagnosis will be difficult. Ineffective diagnostic testing or imaging, which can be caused by numerous errors during the process (detailed in the report). Diagnostic uncertainty or biases can also result in errors. However, not all errors are due to “human error”. The report asserts that diagnostic errors often occur because of errors in the health care system, including both systemic and communication errors.

When diagnostic errors do occur, they can be difficult to identify. The data on diagnostic errors is sparse due to both liability concerns as well as a lack of focus historically on diagnostic errors. In addition, there are few reliable measures for measuring diagnostic errors, and diagnostic errors can frequently only be definitely determined in retrospect.

The report identifies eight goals for improving diagnosis and reducing diagnostic errors that address these potential causes of diagnostic errors. These goals are presented as a call to action to health care professionals, organizations, patients and their families, as well as researchers and policy makers.

To view a high-level overview of the impacts to the goals, potential causes and recommendations related to diagnostic error presented in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, click on “Download PDF” above. To learn more:

To read the report, click here.

For an overview of the diagnostic process, click here.

For an example of a diagnostic error with extensive public health impacts, click here.