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Diagnostic errors: “A complex problem that requires a many-pronged, multi-level attack”

A landmark Institute of Medicine report released last last month showed that despite dramatic improvements in patient safety over the last 15 years, diagnostic errors have been the critical blind spot of health-care providers.

Kathryn McDonald, executive director of Stanford’s Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, is a member of the committee that wrote the report, “Improving Diagnosis in Health Care.” I recently spoke with her about the report’s findings and also got her suggestions for limiting one of the most overlooked health-care dilemmas today. Among our Q&As:

Q: You outline eight goals that physicians and health-care providers should follow in their diagnostic practice. Which do you believe are the most significant?

McDonald: They are all important. I know that isn’t a satisfying answer, but this is a complex problem that requires a many-pronged, multi-level attack from education to payment system reforms. We tried to be bold and aspirational, while grounded in the existing evidence. I guess if I had to underscore a goal where I am most optimistic that it will make a difference in the short run, I’d point to the teamwork one. There is a growing evidence base that the benefits of teamwork accrue to all members of the team, so this recommendation has the potential to be a win-win for all involved. Improving diagnosis is quite challenging, partly because making a diagnosis is a collaborative effort and involves many, often iterative, steps — few simple ones. These steps can unfold over time, across different health-care settings, and usually involve diagnostic uncertainty. All the moving parts, all the different types of expertise, all the people involved, well that’s a call for teamwork. This IOM report and the challenge of improving diagnosis puts health-care organizations on the hook for ensuring that health-care professionals have knowledge and skills to engage in effective teamwork — both interprofessionally and intraprofessionally. And the goal doesn’t stop there. We also recommended, as part of this first goal, that health-care professionals and organizations should partner with patients and their families as diagnostic team members, and facilitate patient and family engagement in the diagnostic process, aligned with their needs, values and preferences.

Beth Duff-Brown is communications manager for the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR).

Previously: Better communication between caregivers reduces medical errors, study finds

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