What Contributes to Diagnostic Error or Delay? A Qualitative Exploration Across Diverse Acute Care Settings in the United States

J Patient Saf. 2021 Jun 1;17(4):239-248. doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000817.


Objectives: Diagnostic error and delay is a prevalent and impactful problem. This study was part of a mixed-methods approach to understand the organizational, clinician, and patient factors contributing to diagnostic error and delay among acutely ill patients within a health system, as well as recommendations for the development of tailored, targeted, feasible, and effective interventions.

Methods: We did a multisite qualitative study using focus group methodology to explore the perspectives of key clinician stakeholders. We used a conceptual framework that characterized diagnostic error and delay as occurring within 1 of 3 stages of the patient's diagnostic journey-critical information gathering, synthesis of key information, and decision making and communication. We developed our moderator guide based on the sociotechnical frameworks previously described by Holden and Singh for understanding noncognitive factors that lead to diagnostic error and delay. Deidentified focus group transcripts were coded in triplicate and to consensus over a series of meetings. A final coded data set was then uploaded into NVivo software. The data were then analyzed to generate overarching themes and categories.

Results: We recruited a total of 64 participants across 4 sites from emergency departments, hospital floor, and intensive care unit settings into 11 focus groups. Clinicians perceive that diverse organizational, communication and coordination, individual clinician, and patient factors interact to impede the process of making timely and accurate diagnoses.

Conclusions: This study highlights the complex sociotechnical system within which individual clinicians operate and the contributions of systems, processes, and institutional factors to diagnostic error and delay.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Consensus
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Qualitative Research
  • United States