The importance of cognitive errors in diagnosis and strategies to minimize them

Acad Med. 2003 Aug;78(8):775-80. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200308000-00003.


In the area of patient safety, recent attention has focused on diagnostic error. The reduction of diagnostic error is an important goal because of its associated morbidity and potential preventability. A critical subset of diagnostic errors arises through cognitive errors, especially those associated with failures in perception, failed heuristics, and biases; collectively, these have been referred to as cognitive dispositions to respond (CDRs). Historically, models of decision-making have given insufficient attention to the contribution of such biases, and there has been a prevailing pessimism against improving cognitive performance through debiasing techniques. Recent work has catalogued the major cognitive biases in medicine; the author lists these and describes a number of strategies for reducing them ("cognitive debiasing"). Principle among them is metacognition, a reflective approach to problem solving that involves stepping back from the immediate problem to examine and reflect on the thinking process. Further research effort should be directed at a full and complete description and analysis of CDRs in the context of medicine and the development of techniques for avoiding their associated adverse outcomes. Considerable potential exists for reducing cognitive diagnostic errors with this approach. The author provides an extensive list of CDRs and a list of strategies to reduce diagnostic errors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition*
  • Decision Support Techniques*
  • Diagnostic Errors / prevention & control*
  • Humans