Diagnostic Error Detection Comes Into Focus

Cheryl Clark, November 7, 2013

A developing discipline aims to find ways to measure efficient accuracy and diagnostic prowess, just as we now scrutinize core measures and surgical outcomes.

Last month's shocker that a robustly healthy long-time friend had just been diagnosed with an awful cancer has devastated me. The discovery of his illness came so late that it allowed him just a few weeks to prepare for his death.

Distracted and irritable, I hid behind life's minutiae to deny what was actually happening. I told myself the poor prognosis was exaggerated. After the inevitable had been confirmed and I had had a good cry, it prompted the question we all ask ourselves when terrible stuff like this happens.

Why didn't his doctors catch this sooner?

Maybe the clinicians' bet was on another culprit that fit this patient's youthful profile more conveniently. Perhaps there was a failure to order the right test. Could a test result have been interpreted incorrectly?

There might have been lack of follow up on the part of a doctor, a nurse, or even a clerical error. Or maybe the patient didn't accurately relate symptoms soon enough or thought they would all go away.

A Different Kind of Medical Error
Who knows what should have happened differently, if anything. Or even if a quicker catch would have prevented an early death. Maybe my friend's illness just sped out of control before anyone could do anything.

Though lawyers might seize on such cases to assign monetary blame, healthcare professionals don't usually think of delayed diagnoses as medical errors in the same class as wrong-site surgeries or a preventable infections.


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