Diagnostic Errors in Pediatric Critical Care: A Systematic Review

Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2021 Aug 1;22(8):701-712. doi: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000002735.


Objectives: To summarize the literature on prevalence, impact, and contributing factors related to diagnostic error in the PICU.

Data sources: Search of PubMed, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Library up to December 2019.

Study selection: Studies on diagnostic error and the diagnostic process in pediatric critical care were included. Non-English studies with no translation, case reports/series, studies providing no information on diagnostic error, studies focused on non-PICU populations, and studies focused on a single condition/disease or a single diagnostic test/tool were excluded.

Data extraction: Data on research design, objectives, study sample, and results pertaining to the prevalence, impact, and factors associated with diagnostic error were abstracted from each study.

Data synthesis: Using independent tiered review, 396 abstracts were screened, and 17 studies (14 full-text, 3 abstracts) were ultimately included. Fifteen of 17 studies (88%) had an observational research design. Autopsy studies (autopsy rates were 20-47%) showed a 10-23% rate of missed major diagnoses; 5-16% of autopsy-discovered diagnostic errors had a potential adverse impact on survival and would have changed management. Retrospective record reviews reported varying rates of diagnostic error from 8% in a general PICU population to 12% among unexpected critical admissions and 21-25% of patients discussed at PICU morbidity and mortality conferences. Cardiovascular, infectious, congenital, and neurologic conditions were most commonly misdiagnosed. Systems factors (40-67%), cognitive factors (20-3%), and both systems and cognitive factors (40%) were associated with diagnostic error. Limited information was available on the impact of misdiagnosis.

Conclusions: Knowledge of diagnostic errors in the PICU is limited. Future work to understand diagnostic errors should involve a balanced focus between studying the diagnosis of individual diseases and uncovering common system- and process-related determinants of diagnostic error.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy
  • Child
  • Critical Care*
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Hospitalization*
  • Humans
  • Retrospective Studies