Patient Safety: 10 Tips to Prevent Diagnostic Errors

by John McKiggan

A diagnostic error, or misdiagnosis, happens when a doctor (or other health care professional) reaches an incorrect conclusion about what is wrong with you.

In Canada up to 7.5% of patients experience some form of diagnostic error.

Why Diagnostic Errors Happen

There are many reasons why diagnostic errors can happen including:

Lack of information: Sometimes patients do not provide a complete or accurate medical history. If a doctor is not aware of significant signs or symptoms that the patient is suffering from they may not be able to accurately diagnose the patient’s problem.

Multiple doctors: When a patient is treated by several different doctors there may be problems with communicating information between health care professionals. When each doctor has one piece of the puzzle and they don’t all communicate to put the pieces together then diagnostic errors can occur.

Diagnostic inertia: If one doctor doesn’t conduct a thorough examination and create a complete differential diagnosis list other doctors may follow the same incorrect path created by the initial misdiagnosis.

Failure to order or follow-up on test results: If a doctor fails to order an appropriate test or follow-up on the results of tests that they have ordered, patient safety can be jeopardized.

An Example

In one case we were involved in the emergency room doctor ordered blood tests on my client. The test results (that came back about an hour after my client was discharged from the emergency room) showed that he had a severe infection. The doctor did not notify the patient. The infection advanced to the point where it caused an abscess to my client’s spine and he became paralyzed.

10 Tips to Prevent Diagnostic Errors

1. After your doctor examines you ask for their “differential diagnosis”. Ask your doctor for the condition or conditions that they suspect and the reasons for their diagnosis.

2. Alternatives: Ask your doctor if there are any other reasonable alternative diagnosis for the signs and symptoms that you are suffering from.

3. Get an advocate: Many people are not comfortable questioning their doctor. Ask a family member or a friend to attend your examinations and take notes.

4. Make a list: Create a list of all of your symptoms. Go from the top of your head down to your toes and list all of the problems, signs and symptoms that you are concerned about. Record the time of day that the symptoms occurred and how long they lasted. Provide this information to your doctors when they examine you.

5. Medical history: If you see a doctor for the first time, write down a brief medical history including any past medical problems, any medications that you are taking, any allergies and any past medical conditions or surgeries.

6. Follow-up: Many diagnostic errors happen because tests are ordered but the doctor fails to read the test results when they are completed. If you are in the hospital ask your doctor for the results of your tests. If your family doctor has ordered tests, call back and ask for copies of the test results.

7. Google is your friend: After your doctor tells you their diagnosis, research the condition online so you know what signs and symptoms to look for.

8. Get a second opinion: You are entitled to ask your doctor for a second opinion. If you are not comfortable doing this ask a friend or family member to advocate for you.

9. Repeat tests: If you are still concerned about your ongoing symptoms ask your doctor to repeat the diagnostic tests.

10. Communication: The most important way to prevent diagnostic errors is to make sure there is full and open communication between you and your doctors. Tell your doctor about any questions or concerns that you have.

Nobody knows your body better then you do and the more information you are able to provide your doctor, the better he or she will be able to accurately diagnose your illness.

If you or a loved one have suffered injuries that you think may be due to medical malpractice you can buy a copy of my book: The Consumer’s Guide to Medical Malpractice Claims in Canada: Why 98% of Canadian Medical Malpractice Victims Never Receive a Penny in Compensation. on

Or you can contact me through this blog or by calling toll free in Atlantic Canada 1-877-423-2050 and we will send you a copy, free, anywhere in the Maritimes.

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