Patients' Perspectives of Diagnostic Error: A Qualitative Study

J Patient Saf. 2021 Dec 1;17(8):e1759-e1764. doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000642.


Objectives: The Institute of Medicine (IOM) defines diagnostic error as the failure to establish an accurate or timely explanation for the patient's health problem(s) or effectively communicate the explanation to the patient. Using this definition, we sought to characterize diagnostic errors experienced by patients and describe patient perspectives on causes, impacts, and prevention strategies.

Methods: We conducted interviews of adults hospitalized at an academic medical center. We used the framework of the IOM definition of diagnostic error to perform thematic analysis of qualitative data. Descriptive statistics were used to summarize quantitative data.

Results: Based on the IOM's definition of diagnostic error, 27 of the 69 included patients reported at least one diagnostic error in the past 5 years. The errors were distributed evenly across the following three dimensions of the IOM definition: accuracy, communication, and timeliness. Limited time with doctors, communication, clinical assessment, and clinical management emerged as major themes for causes of diagnostic error and for strategies to reduce diagnostic error. Impacts of errors included emotional distress, adverse health outcomes, and impaired activities of daily living.

Conclusions: This study uses the recent IOM definition of diagnostic error to provide insights into diagnostic error from the patient perspective. We found that diagnostic errors were commonly reported by hospitalized adults and have a profound impact on patients' well-being. Patients' insights regarding potential causes and prevention strategies may help identify opportunities to reduce diagnostic errors.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living*
  • Adult
  • Communication
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Humans
  • Physicians*
  • Qualitative Research