UMEM Educational Pearls

Category: Misc

Title: Diagnostic Errors in the Emergency Department

Keywords: Errors (PubMed Search)

Posted: 4/14/2009 by Rob Rogers, MD (Updated: 4/13/2024)
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Diagnostic Errors in the Emergency Department

Believe it or not, there is actually a field of medicine that is devoted to examining how physicians think in clinical practice, i.e. how we make diagnostic decisions. Much of the work on this has been done by Pat Croskerry. This is extremely important for emergency physicians because we frequently have to make split second medical decisions with little to no information.

Why is this so important? If we can understand where errors are made, we can actually improve our own diagnostic skills and reduce our errors rates.


Some key pitfalls that we all fall victim to:

  • Bias-this refers to the chart that says under past medical history "fibromyalgia, interstitial cystitis, bipolar, chronic constipation." This type of chart has set us up to potentially miss a diagnosis because our thought processes shut down before we have even started. Ever miss a diagnosis or almost make a mistake because of your feelings about a patient (sometimes BEFORE seeing them)? This is bias. Being aware of this dangerous pitfall in practice is the first step in preventing bias-related mistakes.
  • Premature closure of the differential diagnosis-Now, we do this a lot in medicine. Some diagnosis falls in our lap (patient gives it to us, or a consultant tells us that is what it is) and we fail to r/o other things on our list. Key mistake we make is related to not considering other entities on the differential diagnosis. Take home point: Don't narrow the differential diagnosis until it is time to do so.


Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think

Pat Croskerry