Common contributing factors of diagnostic error: A retrospective analysis of 109 serious adverse event reports from Dutch hospitals

Jacky Hooftman, Aart Cornelis Dijkstra, Ilse Suurmeijer, Akke Van Der Bij, Ellen Paap, Laura Zwaan*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Although diagnostic errors have gained renewed focus within the patient safety domain, measuring them remains a challenge. They are often measured using methods that lack information on decision-making processes given by involved physicians (eg, record reviews). The current study analyses serious adverse event (SAE) reports from Dutch hospitals to identify common contributing factors of diagnostic errors in hospital medicine. These reports are the results of thorough investigations by highly trained, independent hospital committees into the causes of SAEs. The reports include information from involved healthcare professionals and patients or family obtained through interviews. 


All 71 Dutch hospitals were invited to participate in this study. Participating hospitals were asked to send four diagnostic SAE reports of their hospital. Researchers applied the Safer Dx Instrument, a Generic Analysis Framework, the Diagnostic Error Evaluation and Research (DEER) taxonomy and the Eindhoven Classification Model (ECM) to analyse reports.


Thirty-one hospitals submitted 109 eligible reports. Diagnostic errors most often occurred in the diagnostic testing, assessment and follow-up phases according to the DEER taxonomy. The ECM showed human errors as the most common contributing factor, especially relating to communication of results, task planning and execution, and knowledge. Combining the most common DEER subcategories and the most common ECM classes showed that clinical reasoning errors resulted from failures in knowledge, and task planning and execution. Follow-up errors and errors with communication of test results resulted from failures in coordination and monitoring, often accompanied by usability issues in electronic health record design and missing protocols. 


Diagnostic errors occurred in every hospital type, in different specialties and with different care teams. While clinical reasoning errors remain a common problem, often caused by knowledge and skill gaps, other frequent errors in communication of test results and follow-up require different improvement measures (eg, improving technological systems).

Original languageEnglish
Article numberbmjqs-2022-015876
JournalBMJ Quality and Safety
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Aug 2023

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© Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2023. Re-use permitted under CC BY-NC. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ.


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