Diagnostic error in the emergency department: learning from national patient safety incident report analysis

BMC Emerg Med. 2019 Dec 4;19(1):77. doi: 10.1186/s12873-019-0289-3.


Background: Diagnostic error occurs more frequently in the emergency department than in regular in-patient hospital care. We sought to characterise the nature of reported diagnostic error in hospital emergency departments in England and Wales from 2013 to 2015 and to identify the priority areas for intervention to reduce their occurrence.

Methods: A cross-sectional mixed-methods design using an exploratory descriptive analysis and thematic analysis of patient safety incident reports. Primary data were extracted from a national database of patient safety incidents. Reports were filtered for emergency department settings, diagnostic error (as classified by the reporter), from 2013 to 2015. These were analysed for the chain of events, contributory factors and harm outcomes.

Results: There were 2288 cases of confirmed diagnostic error: 1973 (86%) delayed and 315 (14%) wrong diagnoses. One in seven incidents were reported to have severe harm or death. Fractures were the most common condition (44%), with cervical-spine and neck of femur the most frequent types. Other common conditions included myocardial infarctions (7%) and intracranial bleeds (6%). Incidents involving both delayed and wrong diagnoses were associated with insufficient assessment, misinterpretation of diagnostic investigations and failure to order investigations. Contributory factors were predominantly human factors, including staff mistakes, healthcare professionals' inadequate skillset or knowledge and not following protocols.

Conclusions: Systems modifications are needed that provide clinicians with better support in performing patient assessment and investigation interpretation. Interventions to reduce diagnostic error need to be evaluated in the emergency department setting, and could include standardised checklists, structured reporting and technological investigation improvements.

Keywords: Diagnostic error; Emergency department.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Delayed Diagnosis / statistics & numerical data
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • England / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Patient Safety / statistics & numerical data*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Wales / epidemiology