3 steps to help reduce diagnostic errors

Time outs, second opinions will help create a culture of patient safety
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Although many providers believe that a diagnostic error can never happen to them, the threat of a misdiagnosis is real. The latest research indicates that a diagnostic error is a factor in about 10 percent of patient deaths, according to a blog post by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Part of the problem is due to the fact that many organizations fail to create a patient-centered culture, according to the post. Patients often don't feel welcome to speak up when they're concerned about a diagnosis, often fearing doing so might adversely affect their care. Clinicians also tend to make assumptions and stick to them, often early in the diagnostic process, the post noted.

Although the extent of the problem hasn't received much attention until the recent release of the Institute of Medicine's diagnostic error report, providers can take basic steps to reduce the chance of these mistakes, according to the blog post. Among the suggestions:

  • Conduct time outs. Taking a moment to pause is commonplace prior to surgeries. It allows the team to make sure that all members agree that they are about to operate on the correct patient and at the correct site. Taking a similar moment of reflection prior to settling on a diagnosis can help prevent clinicians from jumping to conclusions. 
  • Seek second opinions. Patients aren't the only ones who should obtain a second opinion. Providers must also ask their colleagues for their thoughts. In particular, clinicians should talk to the radiologist or pathologist who conducted a test before making a diagnosis based on the results.
  • Manage test results. Organizations and providers should review their test result procedures and how long it takes to get diagnoses to patients. Managing test results is a six-step process, according to the post, potentially involving multiple specialists, departments and sometimes institutions.