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Diagnostic Errors in Healthcare: Causes and Prevention

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Diagnostic errors in healthcare are a prevalent issue that can have significant consequences for patients. These errors occur when healthcare providers fail to establish an accurate and timely explanation of a patient’s health problem or fail to communicate that explanation effectively. Diagnostic errors are particularly concerning when they involve diagnoses of cancer, vascular events, or infection, as they can lead to preventable morbidity and mortality. It is crucial to understand the causes of diagnostic errors and implement effective prevention strategies to minimize their occurrence and improve patient outcomes.

Causes of diagnostic errors

1. Incomplete or incorrect information

Accurate and complete information is crucial in the diagnosis process as it forms the foundation for healthcare providers to make informed decisions about a patient’s condition. Without accurate and complete information, there is a higher risk of diagnostic errors, which can lead to preventable harm and even mortality.

2. Biased information

Diagnostic errors in healthcare can be influenced by biased information, which can have a significant impact on the accuracy of diagnoses. Biases in the information used for diagnosis can stem from various factors, such as clinicians’ thought processes and lack of objective feedback. To mitigate these biases, systems that provide clinicians with objective information and feedback on their diagnostic performance are crucial.

3. Unclear or confusing information

Diagnostic errors can have significant consequences on patient outcomes and are defined as the failure to establish an accurate and timely explanation of the patient’s health problem or to communicate that explanation to the patient. These errors can occur due to various factors, including the complexity of the diagnostic process, complexities in healthcare delivery, and cognitive errors that are inherent in everyday life.

4. Stress and fatigue

Stress and fatigue play a significant role in contributing to diagnostic errors among healthcare professionals. The demanding nature of the healthcare environment, coupled with long working hours and high-pressure situations, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion. This, in turn, impairs cognitive functioning and decision-making abilities, increasing the likelihood of diagnostic errors.

5. Unreliable medical tools

Diagnostic errors related to unreliable medical tools can occur due to various factors. One major cause is the limitations of trigger tools, such as the Global Trigger Tool, which was primarily designed to identify treatment errors rather than diagnostic errors. These tools may be poorly suited to detecting errors of omission, which are common in diagnostic errors. Additionally, the reliance on electronic triggers to identify patients with unscheduled hospitalizations or discrepancies in laboratory and pharmacy records can lead to errors if the triggers are not accurately designed or if the data mining process is not refined.

6. Poor communication

Failure to effectively communicate test results has been recognized as a common problem in both ambulatory and inpatient settings, leading to delays in the diagnosis and treatment of patients.

7. Lack of expertise

Diagnostic errors in healthcare can be attributed to various causes, including a lack of expertise in the field. Research suggests that cognitive-based factors, such as failed heuristics and shortcomings in disease-specific knowledge and experience, contribute to diagnostic errors.

8. Unfamiliarity with the disease

Diagnostic errors, where patients are misdiagnosed, can have significant consequences for healthcare. A recent study conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that nearly 6% of patients visiting US emergency rooms are misdiagnosed, equating to about 1 in 18 patients receiving the wrong diagnosis.

9. Pressure to make a quick diagnosis

The pressure to make a quick diagnosis in healthcare can contribute to diagnostic errors, resulting in potential harm to patients. Several causes can be identified to explain this relationship:

  1. Anchoring bias
  2. External pressures
  3. Patient-related factors
  4. Limited time for a thorough evaluation
  5. Fear of uncertainty

10. Unfavorable system incentives

Unfavorable system incentives can play a significant role in contributing to diagnostic errors in healthcare. These incentives refer to the various factors within the healthcare system that create a disincentive for accurate and thorough diagnosis, leading to potential errors in patient care, including:

  1. Time pressure
  2. Financial incentives
  3. Fear of medical malpractice lawsuits
  4. Fragmented healthcare systems
  5. Emphasis on productivity and efficiency

Ways to prevent diagnostic errors

1. Reviewing diagnostic tests and diagnoses

Reviewing diagnostic tests and diagnoses is a crucial step in preventing diagnostic errors in healthcare. Diagnostic errors can lead to serious consequences for patients, including delayed or incorrect treatment, unnecessary procedures, and even harm or death. Therefore, it is essential for healthcare professionals to have strategies and best practices in place to effectively review and validate diagnostic tests and diagnoses.

2. Use of checklists

Checklists have been shown to be effective tools in preventing diagnostic errors in healthcare. Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of using checklists in different healthcare settings. For instance, Graber and his colleagues conducted a study in emergency settings and found that checklists could prevent diagnostic errors by including additional diagnostic possibilities.

3. Sharing information between healthcare providers

Effective communication and information sharing play a crucial role in preventing diagnostic errors in the healthcare setting. When healthcare providers have access to complete and accurate patient information, they are better equipped to make informed decisions and provide appropriate care.

4. Using decision support tools

To mitigate diagnostic errors, decision support tools have emerged as valuable resources for healthcare professionals. These tools provide clinicians with evidence-based information, guidelines, and recommendations to aid in the diagnostic process. They can be categorized as follows:

  1. Clinical Decision Support Systems (CDSS)
  2. Differential diagnosis generators
  3. Mobile apps
  4. Clinical documentation tools
  5. Decision support in specific specialties

5. Training for physicians

Training plays a crucial role in reducing diagnostic errors among physicians. Diagnostic errors can have significant consequences for patients, leading to delayed or missed diagnoses and potentially compromising patient safety. Training includes:

  1. Education programs in primary care settings
  2. Training on metacognitive skills
  3. Online training
  4. Training interventions for visual perception in radiology practice
  5. Transfer of learning from educational setting to clinical setting

6. Utilizing alerts and notification systems

Alerts and notification systems play a crucial role in preventing diagnostic errors in healthcare settings. These systems are designed to provide timely and relevant information to healthcare providers, ensuring that critical results and important patient updates are promptly communicated and acted upon.

7. Conducting research on a subject

Conducting research on the subject of diagnostic errors in healthcare is of utmost importance in order to improve patient safety and enhance the quality of healthcare delivery. Diagnostic errors can lead to serious consequences, including delayed or incorrect treatment, patient harm, and even death. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the underlying factors contributing to diagnostic errors and identify effective interventions to minimize their occurrence.

8. Tracking diagnostic error rates

Tracking diagnostic error rates in healthcare is of utmost importance in improving patient safety. However, it is disconcerting that very few healthcare organizations in the USA are currently measuring these error rates. In ambulatory settings, Tsang and colleagues conducted a review of available methods for measuring adverse events and found that none were helpful in identifying diagnostic errors. This indicates a significant gap in our ability to capture and address diagnostic errors in outpatient care.

9. Implementing an error reporting system

By having an effective error reporting system in place, healthcare organizations can identify and address these errors promptly, leading to improved patient safety and quality of care. In this section, we will provide a step-by-step guide on how to successfully implement an error reporting system to prevent diagnostic errors.

10. Using technology to improve communication between healthcare providers

Technology plays a significant role in enhancing communication in healthcare settings, offering various tools and applications that can bridge communication gaps and reduce the risk of errors. By leveraging technology, healthcare providers can streamline communication processes, facilitate timely information exchange, and improve collaboration. The technology includes:

  1. Technology-based communication systems
  2. Electronic Health Records (EHRs)
  3. Telemedicine and teleconsultation
  4. Mobile applications and messaging platforms
  5. Clinical decision support systems


In conclusion, diagnostic errors in healthcare are a serious issue with potentially severe consequences for patients. These errors can stem from various causes, including incomplete or biased information, unclear communication, stress and fatigue among healthcare professionals, unreliable medical tools, poor communication, lack of expertise, unfamiliarity with diseases, pressure to make quick diagnoses, and unfavorable system incentives.

To prevent diagnostic errors, strategies such as reviewing diagnostic tests and diagnoses, using checklists, sharing information between healthcare providers, utilizing decision support tools, providing training for physicians, implementing alerts and notification systems, conducting research, tracking error rates, implementing error reporting systems, and leveraging technology for improved communication are essential. By addressing these causes and implementing effective prevention strategies, healthcare providers can minimize diagnostic errors and improve patient outcomes.