Commentary: Reducing diagnostic errors: another role for checklists?

Acad Med. 2011 Mar;86(3):279-81. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182082692.


Diagnostic errors are a widespread problem, although the true magnitude is unknown because they cannot currently be measured validly. These errors have received relatively little attention despite alarming estimates of associated harm and death. One promising intervention to reduce preventable harm is the checklist. This intervention has proven successful in aviation, in which situations are linear and deterministic (one alarm goes off and a checklist guides the flight crew to evaluate the cause). In health care, problems are multifactorial and complex. A checklist has been used to reduce central-line-associated bloodstream infections in intensive care units. Nevertheless, this checklist was incorporated in a culture-based safety program that engaged and changed behaviors and used robust measurement of infections to evaluate progress. In this issue, Ely and colleagues describe how three checklists could reduce the cognitive biases and mental shortcuts that underlie diagnostic errors, but point out that these tools still need to be tested. To be effective, they must reduce diagnostic errors (efficacy) and be routinely used in practice (effectiveness). Such tools must intuitively support how the human brain works, and under time pressures, clinicians rarely think in conditional probabilities when making decisions. To move forward, it is necessary to accurately measure diagnostic errors (which could come from mapping out the diagnostic process as the medication process has done and measuring errors at each step) and pilot test interventions such as these checklists to determine whether they work.

Publication types

  • Comment
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Checklist*
  • Diagnostic Errors / prevention & control*
  • Humans