Background Diagnostic errors are a significant cause of patient harm. Cognitive processes often contribute to diagnostic errors but studying and mitigating the effects of these errors is challenging. Computerized virtual patients may provide insight into the diagnostic process without the potential for patient harm, but the feasibility and utility of using such cases in practicing physicians has not been well described. Methods We developed a series of computerized virtual cases depicting common presentations of disease that included contextual factors that could result in diagnostic error. Cases were piloted by practicing physicians in two phases and participant impressions of the case platform and cases were recorded, as was outcome data on physician performance. Results Participants noted significant challenges in using the case platform. Participants specifically struggled with becoming familiar with the platform and adjusting to the non-adaptive and constraining processes of the model. Although participants found the cases to be typical presentations of problems commonly encountered in practice, the correct diagnosis was identified in less than 33% of cases. Conclusions The development of virtual patient cases for use by practicing physicians requires substantial resources and platforms that account for the non-linear and adaptive nature of reasoning in experienced clinicians. Platforms that are without such characteristics may negatively affect diagnostic performance. The novelty of such platforms may also have the potential to increase cognitive load. Nonetheless, virtual cases may have the potential to be a safe and robust means of studying clinical reasoning performance.
Keywords: cognitive bias; diagnostic error; virtual cases.