Mind the overlap: how system problems contribute to cognitive failure and diagnostic errors

Diagnosis (Berl). 2018 Sep 25;5(3):151-156. doi: 10.1515/dx-2018-0014.


INTRODUCTION:: Traditionally, research has examined systems- and cognitive-based sources of diagnostic error as individual entities. However, half of all errors have origins in both domains.

METHODS:: We conducted a focused ethnography of inpatient physicians at two academic institutions to understand how systems-based problems contribute to cognitive errors in diagnosis. Medicine teams were observed on rounds and during post-round work after which interviews were conducted. Field notes related to the diagnostic process and the work system were recorded, and findings were organized into themes. Using deductive content analysis, themes were categorized based on a published taxonomy to link systems-based contributions and cognitive errors such as faulty data gathering, information processing, data verification and errors associated with multiple domains.

RESULTS:: Observations, focus groups and interviews of 10 teams were conducted between January 2016 and April 2017. The following themes were identified: (1) challenges with interdisciplinary communication and communication within the electronic medical record contributed to faulty data gathering; (2) organizational structures such as the operation of consulting services in silos promoted faulty information processing; (3) care handoffs led to faulty data verification, and; (4) interruptions, time constraints, and a cluttered physical environment negatively influenced multiple cognitive domains.

CONCLUSIONS:: Systems-based factors often facilitate and promote cognitive problems in diagnosis. Linking systems-based contributions to downstream cognitive impacts and intervening on both in tandem may help prevent diagnostic errors.

Keywords: cognitive error; diagnostic error; systems-related error.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural / methods
  • Clinical Decision-Making / ethics
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Data Collection / statistics & numerical data*
  • Data Collection / trends
  • Diagnostic Errors / psychology*
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data
  • Focus Groups / methods
  • Hospital Communication Systems / standards
  • Humans
  • Inpatients / statistics & numerical data
  • Medical Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Medical Errors / trends
  • Observation / methods
  • Physicians / psychology
  • Physicians / statistics & numerical data