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Urgent change needed to improve diagnosis in health care or diagnostic errors will likely worsen

Most people will experience at least one diagnostic error — an inaccurate or delayed diagnosis — in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report found that although getting the right diagnosis is a key aspect of , efforts to improve diagnosis and reduce have been quite limited. Improving diagnosis is a complex challenge, partly because making a diagnosis is a collaborative and inherently inexact process that may unfold over time and across different health care settings. To improve diagnosis and reduce errors, the committee called for more effective teamwork among health care professionals, patients, and families; enhanced training for health care professionals; more emphasis on identifying and learning from and near misses in clinical practice; a payment and care delivery environment that supports the diagnostic process; and a dedicated focus on new research.

This report is a continuation of the Institute of Medicine’s Quality Chasm Series, which includes reports such as To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century, and Preventing Medication Errors.

“These landmark IOM reports reverberated throughout the health care community and were the impetus for system-wide improvements in patient safety and quality care,” said Victor J. Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine. “But this latest report is a serious wake-up call that we still have a long way to go. Diagnostic errors are a significant contributor to patient harm that has received far too little attention until now. I am confident that Improving Diagnosis in Health Care, like the earlier reports in the IOM series, will have a profound effect not only on the way our health care system operates but also on the lives of patients.”

Data on diagnostic errors are sparse, few reliable measures exist, and errors are often found in retrospect, the committee found. However, from the available evidence, the committee determined that diagnostic errors stem from a wide variety of causes that include inadequate collaboration and communication among clinicians, patients, and their families; a health care work system ill-designed to support the diagnostic process; limited feedback to clinicians about the accuracy of diagnoses; and a culture that discourages transparency and disclosure of diagnostic errors, which impedes attempts to learn and improve. Errors will likely worsen as the delivery of health care and the diagnostic process continue to increase in complexity, the committee concluded. To improve diagnosis, a significant re-envisioning of the diagnostic process and a widespread commitment to change from a variety of stakeholders will be required.

“Diagnosis is a collective effort that often involves a team of health care professionals — from primary care physicians, to nurses, to pathologists and radiologists,” said John R. Ball, chair of the committee and executive vice president emeritus, American College of Physicians. “The stereotype of a single physician contemplating a patient case and discerning a diagnosis is not always accurate, and a diagnostic error is not always due to human error. Therefore, to make the changes necessary to reduce diagnostic errors in our health care system, we have to look more broadly at improving the entire process of how a diagnosis made.”