Defining Diagnostic Error: A Scoping Review to Assess the Impact of the National Academies' Report Improving Diagnosis in Health Care

J Patient Saf. 2022 Dec 1;18(8):770-778. doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000999. Epub 2022 Apr 27.


Background: Standards for accurate and timely diagnosis are ill-defined. In 2015, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee published a landmark report, Improving Diagnosis in Health Care , and proposed a new definition of diagnostic error, "the failure to ( a ) establish an accurate and timely explanation of the patient's health problem(s) or ( b ) communicate that explanation to the patient."

Objective: This study aimed to explore how researchers operationalize the NASEM's definition of diagnostic error with relevance to accuracy, timeliness, and/or communication in peer-reviewed published literature.

Methods: Using the Arskey and O'Malley's framework framework, we identified published literature from October 2015 to February 2021 using Medline and Google Scholar. We also conducted subject matter expert interviews with researchers.

Results: Of 34 studies identified, 16 were analyzed and abstracted to determine how diagnostic error was operationalized and measured. Studies were grouped by theme: epidemiology, patient focus, measurement/surveillance, and clinician focus. Nine studies indicated using the NASEM definition. Of those, 5 studies also operationalized with existing definitions proposed before the NASEM report. Four studies operationalized the components of the NASEM definition and did not cite existing definitions. Three studies operationalized error using existing definitions only. Subject matter experts indicated that the NASEM definition functions as foundation for researchers to conceptualize diagnostic error.

Conclusions: The NASEM report produced a common understanding of diagnostic error that includes accuracy, timeliness, and communication. In recent peer-reviewed literature, most researchers continue to use pre-NASEM report definitions to operationalize accuracy and timeliness. The report catalyzed the use of patient-centered concepts in the definition, resulting in emerging studies focused on examining errors related to communicating diagnosis to patients.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Academies and Institutes
  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Diagnostic Errors / prevention & control
  • Health Facilities
  • Humans
  • Medicine*