Healthcare News & Insights

6 ways to reduce diagnostic errors in hospitals

Diagnostic errors are a huge problem in hospitals. A new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) offers practical strategies facilities can use to improve the diagnostic process. 

Female medicine doctor filling in patient medical history list

According to the report, diagnostic errors account for 6% to 17% of adverse events in hospitals, and 5% of patients who seek outpatient care receive the wrong diagnosis for their conditions.

In addition, errors with diagnoses are the leading cause of costly medical malpractice claims. And they’re nearly twice as likely to involve a patient’s death.

Why problems happen

The report cites several reasons why diagnostic errors occur in healthcare settings:

  • a lack of communication and collaboration between clinicians, patients and family members
  • flaws in the healthcare work system that don’t support the diagnostic process
  • a lack of feedback for clinicians about the diagnoses they select, and
  • a culture that discourages transparency and disclosure of any diagnostic errors.

Without making a specific effort to remove these weaknesses from the diagnostic process, errors will only continue – or even get worse.

Stopping errors

To combat diagnostic problems, the IOM suggests hospitals take a positive, proactive approach. Instead of only focusing on reducing errors, hospital leaders should place significant effort into initiatives to improve clinicians’ diagnoses.

Taken straight from the IOM’s goals, here are six ways hospitals can enhance their diagnostic process:

  1. Facilitate better teamwork in the diagnostic process between clinical staff, patients and their families. Clinicians need to fully involve patients and their families when diagnosing a condition. Patients and their loved ones have an important role to play in this process. They have an intimate knowledge of the signs and symptoms accompanying the potential illness and can help providers make a more informed diagnosis.
  2. Enhance education and training on making the correct diagnosis. Learning how to effectively diagnose patients doesn’t stop when a resident finishes medical school. This should be an ongoing process supported by a hospital with continuing education and regular training. In addition, clinicians should receive feedback about their diagnostic process on a regular basis with targeted suggestions for improvement.
  3. Ensure health IT supports patients and healthcare professionals in the diagnostic process. A big complaint from clinicians is technology, such as electronic health records (EHR), is often chosen without any input from frontline providers. If doctors aren’t allowed to take an active role in picking technology, significant hurdles can be created that increase the chance of diagnostic errors. Collaboration between executives, vendors and providers is crucial when making any tech upgrade.
  4. Implement a system that identifies diagnostic errors, and includes steps to correct and prevent them. Not many hospitals have organized systems in place to identify diagnostic errors or near-misses. Working with clinicians to create a standardized protocol for these errors can help facilities cut back on diagnostic issues by turning them into learning experiences. It can also allow hospital leaders to identify high-priority areas to target for improvement.
  5. Create a work system and culture designed to support the diagnostic process and encourage improvement. The biggest thing healthcare leaders can do to achieve this is “promote a non-punitive culture that values feedback on diagnostic performance, ensure effective communication in diagnostic testing and design a work system that supports team members involved in the diagnostic process,” including features such as specific steps for recovering from errors.
  6. Develop a reporting environment that’s conducive to improving diagnoses through learning from errors. Healthcare executives should encourage voluntary reporting of diagnostic errors and near misses. They should also regularly evaluate how effective their reporting program is at reducing errors. The focus shouldn’t be on disciplinary action for errors, but on making sure mistakes come to light so they can be prevented in the future.

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