On September 30th, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first travel-associated case of US Ebola in Dallas, TX. This case exposed two of the greatest concerns in patient safety in the US outpatient health care system: misdiagnosis and ineffective use of electronic health records (EHRs). The case received widespread media attention highlighting failures in disaster management, infectious disease control, national security, and emergency department (ED) care. In addition, an error in making a correct and timely Ebola diagnosis on initial ED presentation brought diagnostic decision-making vulnerabilities in the EHR era into the public eye. In this paper, we use this defining "teachable moment" to highlight the public health challenge of diagnostic errors and discuss the effective use of EHRs in the diagnostic process. We analyze the case to discuss several missed opportunities and outline key challenges and opportunities facing diagnostic decision-making in EHR-enabled health care. It is important to recognize the reality that EHRs suffer from major usability and inter-operability issues, but also to acknowledge that they are only tools and not a replacement for basic history-taking, examination skills, and critical thinking. While physicians and health care organizations ultimately need to own the responsibility for addressing diagnostic errors, several national-level initiatives can help, including working with software developers to improve EHR usability. Multifaceted approaches that account for both technical and non-technical factors will be needed. Ebola US Patient Zero reminds us that in certain cases, a single misdiagnosis can have widespread and costly implications for public health.
Keywords: Ebola; cognition; decision-making; diagnostic error; electronic medical records; health information technology; human factors; misdiagnosis; patient safety.