A consensus committee defined diagnostic error as the failure to establish an accurate and timely explanation of a patient’s health problem and communicate the explanation to the patient. The impact of diagnostic error based on this definition is reflected in sobering observations.
- Diagnostic errors contribute to 10 percent of deaths according to autopsy studies
- They are twice as likely to have resulted in a patient’s death compared with other types of errors
- Between 6 and 17% of adverse events in hospitalized patients are attributed to diagnostic errors.
- Five percent of adults in the United States who seek outpatient care experience a diagnostic error.
The costs are no less troublesome: one report from the United States suggests diagnostic errors cost at least $17 billion annually. Adding to the costs is the observation that diagnostic errors are the leading cause of medical malpractice claims.
Diagnostic error is complex
Diagnostic error is complex. It results from a breakdown of the diagnostic process, in which the proper diagnosis and resulting actions evolve iteratively from interactions with a caregiver, patient, and the healthcare system. Examples include failure to recognize opioid intoxication in a patient with mental status changes, failure to consider pulmonary embolism in a patient with shortness of breath, incorrect diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia in a patient with a pre-malignant blood condition, an incomplete physical examination leading to a missed diagnosis of appendicitis, failure to communicate an abnormal chest x-ray finding leading to the delayed diagnosis of lung cancer.
Several recommendations have been endorsed broadly to reduce diagnostic errors. They emphasize efforts to do the following:
- Facilitate effective teamwork in the diagnostic process
- Enhance education and training
- Encourage the use of health information technologies to support the diagnostic process
- Achieve methods to learn from errors
- Establish a culture that encourages better diagnostic performance,
- Develop a reporting environment and liability system that facilitates learning from errors
- Design a payment and care delivery environment that supports the diagnostic process, and
- Provide funding for research on diagnostic errors.
Barriers to reducing diagnostic errors
Unfortunately, due to several barriers that have impeded progress, these recommendations have not yet been adopted widely. Competing initiatives, particularly the implementation of health information technology systems and compliance with regulatory, billing, and reporting requirements, within healthcare systems have hindered progress. In addition, financial constraints among healthcare systems make it difficult to gain enterprise-wide commitment to these initiatives. And lack of requirement for public reporting of diagnostic errors means the scale of the problem isn’t always apparent within healthcare practices.
The economic impetus to tackle diagnostic errors remains largely rooted in the beneficence of healthcare providers, the fear of malpractice litigation, and, to a lesser extent, the recognition that diagnostic errors can be costly. On the last point, the costs of diagnostic errors, under a fee-for-service system, are not always born by those providing the care. As a result, there is limited incentive to prioritize efforts to reduce diagnostic errors compared to other initiatives more directly tied to reimbursement, regulations, or costs.
Related Content: The Why and How of Diagnostic Errors
Nevertheless, progress is being made
The considerations above translate into the lack of a strong business model that supports innovation in technological solutions to reduce diagnostic errors. Nevertheless, there has been measured progress. The adoption of electronic medical record systems permits some forms of diagnostic error to be more easily detected and prevented. For example, digital systems are in place that can ensure that abnormal laboratory or imaging results are communicated to the appropriate personnel. In addition, a number of software tools and other interventions have been developed that help clinicians improve clinical reasoning, thereby reducing cognitive errors that lead to a breakdown of the diagnostic process. Most of these have not been implemented widely, and some that have been adopted, such as tools to aid clinicians in achieving a list of possible diagnoses, have limited benefit.
Clinical decision support (CDS) has also shown promise but data are still evolving. Defined broadly, CDS is a means to provide clinicians intelligently filtered information at the appropriate time to improve healthcare processes and outcomes.
Investigators at a Tokyo-based acute care hospital found that a popular decision support resource had an important impact on diagnostic error. The study compared rates of diagnostic errors made by clinicians equipped with the CDS system during 50 outpatient visits with 50 control patients cared for by clinicians without access to such a system. The authors observed significantly lower rates of diagnostic errors among clinicians who had access to the resource (2 versus 24 percent) even after considering factors such as the patient’s age, sex, primary diagnosis and case difficulty.
The answers to addressing diagnostic errors are not simple and they will require a holistic approach that healthcare systems are only starting to tackle. In the near term, today’s CDS capabilities already demonstrate the potential to substantially reduce diagnostic errors and improve patient outcomes.
Peter A. L. Bonis, M.D., is the chief medical officer for Clinical Effectiveness at Wolters Kluwer Health as well Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Bonis trained in gastroenterology and health services research, and before joining UpToDate in 1998, he was a full-time faculty member at Yale University School of Medicine.