Diagnostic Safety and Quality

Diagnostic error is a significant and under-recognized threat to patient safety. For example, most patients will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, according to the AHRQ-sponsored report, Improving Diagnosis in Health Care, published by the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 2015. These errors occur in all settings of care, contribute to about 10 percent of patient deaths, and are the primary reason for medical liability claims. AHRQ is the lead Federal agency investing in research to improve diagnostic safety. Substantial effort is needed to identify research priorities, including how to measure and reduce diagnostic errors, and ensure this information is integrated into practice, where it will translate meaningful benefits for patients. 

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Since 2007, AHRQ has invested in research to discover findings that advance the knowledge of diagnostic safety and to develop practical tools and resources to improve diagnostic safety. AHRQ funds research to better understand how diagnostic errors happen and what can be done to prevent them.

Research Summit

The September 2016 AHRQ Research Summit on Improving Diagnosis in Health Care explored the state of the science of diagnosis in health care and discussed ways AHRQ and other stakeholders can contribute to a collaborative approach to improving diagnostic performance, as well as identify the research and evidence, tools and training, and data and measures that are needed to improve diagnostic performance.

An article in the June 2017 issue of Diagnosis, authored by members of AHRQ's patient safety team, builds upon themes from the summit by outlining key challenges and areas for potential future research and improvement related to diagnostic errors. Among them are: more robust engagement of patients as an integral part of their health care team; a deeper understanding of diagnostic errors and how to most effectively measure them; successful use of health information technology (IT) to prevent diagnostic error; and structures that optimize how organizations operate and enable better diagnoses for patients.


AHRQ has funded several recent studies on diagnostic error:

  • Outpatient diagnostic errors affect 1 in 20 U.S. adults. This study used data from three previous studies of errors in general primary care diagnosis, colorectal cancer diagnosis, and lung cancer diagnosis. The authors estimated that about half of the diagnostic errors they found could have severely harmed patients.
  • Pediatricians self-report an appreciable number of diagnostic errors. This study also finds that pediatricians are most interested in preventing high-frequency, non-life-threatening errors. A third (36%) reported no help in diagnostic error reduction from their electronic health record.
  • Additional studies and resources can be found by visiting AHRQ’s Patient Safety Network and searching for diagnostic error.

Funding Announcements Related to Diagnostic Errors

Recognizing that all Americans can be affected by diagnostic errors, Congress authorized $2 million in fiscal year 2019 for AHRQ to initiate a research agenda to understand and solve the problem. AHRQ began this effort by issuing a funding opportunity announcement on March 22, 2019 to support research that will more precisely define the scope of diagnostic errors.  It outlines three key areas of interest:

  • Quantifying the incidence of diagnostic errors.
  • Understanding what contributes to these errors.
  • Learning more about the link between diagnostic errors and outcomes, including adverse events.

Grant funding from AHRQ has also helped researchers hold annual conferences to share information about diagnostic error to advance knowledge in the field.  

Tools To Improve Diagnostic Safety

AHRQ tools to reduce diagnostic errors include:

Guide to Patient and Family Engagement. This guide encourages hospital patients and family members to be involved in their care. It focuses on four primary strategies for promoting patient/family engagement in hospital safety and quality of care:

  • Encourage patients and family members to participate as advisors.
  • Promote better communication among patients, family members, and health care professionals from the point of admission.
  • Implement safe continuity of care by keeping the patient and family informed through nurse bedside change-of-shift reports.
  • Engage patients and families in discharge planning throughout the hospital stay.

Learn more about the importance of patient and family engagement with this infographic (PDF, 392 KB).

Guide to Improving Patient Safety in Primary Care Settings by Engaging Patients and Families offers four interventions and four case studies designed to improve patient safety by meaningfully engaging patients and families in their care.

Improving Your Office Testing Process: A Toolkit for Rapid-Cycle Patient Safety and Quality Improvement. About 40 percent of patient encounters in primary care offices involve some form of medical test. Studies of primary care offices consistently show that the process for managing tests is a significant source of error and patient harm. This toolkit helps ensure that diagnostic lab tests are accurately managed and shared with patients and clinicians in a timely manner. The tools help examine how tests are managed in the office, from the moment tests are ordered until the patient is notified of the test results and the appropriate follow up is determined.

Questions Are the Answer: Asking questions about a diagnosis or other aspects of care is a step that patients can take to make care safer. Talking with your doctor builds trust and leads to better results, quality, safety, and satisfaction. One of the best ways to communicate with your doctor and health care team is by asking questions. Because time is limited during medical appointments, you will feel less rushed if you prepare your questions before your appointment. These AHRQ resources demonstrate how asking questions can improve care with tips on how to communicate with clinicians.

Reducing Diagnostic Errors in Primary Care Pediatrics Toolkit aims to assist primary care practice teams with a systematic approach to reduce diagnostic errors among children in three important areas: elevated blood pressure, adolescent depression, and actionable pediatric diagnostic tests. This toolkit walks teams through the measurement, screening, recognition, diagnosis, follow-up, and reduction of diagnostic errors in these areas. It is based on clinical evidence, best practices, and a compilation of resources from the project, which involved over 100 primary care physicians and their care teams working across the United States to improve care for children.

Resources To Facilitate Communication Between Patients and Clinicians: From the IOM report, "Improving Diagnosis in Health Care," this toolkit includes a checklist and other resources to help patients understand what they can to do prevent diagnostic error.

TeamSTEPPS®: Patient safety experts agree that communication and other teamwork skills are essential to the delivery of quality health care and to preventing and mitigating medical errors and patient injury and harm. TeamSTEPPS is an evidence-based program aimed at optimizing performance among teams of health care professionals, enabling them to respond quickly and effectively to whatever situations arise. This training curriculum helps clinical teams improve communication and coordination, making patient care safer.

Resources Related to Diagnostic Safety and Quality

AHRQ Views Blogs

With Increased Funding, AHRQ To Explore Scope and Causes of Diagnostic Errors (March 2019)

Improving Diagnosis: Patient Safety’s Next Great Frontier (October 2016)

New Coalition Broadens Efforts To Reduce Diagnostic Errors (September 2015)

New Report Outlines Goals and Recommendations To Reduce Diagnostic Errors (September 2015)

AHRQ's Patient Safety Network (PSNet)

PSNet highlights the latest patient safety literature, news, and expert commentary, including weekly updates, Web M&M, Patient Safety Primers, and more. You can search diagnostic error to find related studies and resources.

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