Patient FAQs
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Patient FAQs

What is Diagnostic Error?

Diagnosis that is wrong, missed or delayed (Graber 2005).


How Often Does Diagnostic Error Occur?

One in every ten diagnoses is wrong and one in every 20 patients will experience a diagnostic error each year. Diagnostic errors cause an estimated 40,000-80,000 deaths annually.


Where Does Diagnostic Error Occur?

Diagnostic error can occur anywhere, including hospitals and clinics. It occurs most frequently in outpatient settings (such as medical offices) and in emergency departments.

Are Some Types of Specialties More Prone to Making Diagnostic Errors?

Yes, but it is a significant factor in all specialties. It can happen more often in general or primary care practices (internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics) because of the frequency of diagnoses in this setting. The next most common areas are gynecology, general surgery, and orthopedics.

What Are The Diseases Most Commonly Misdiagnosed?

Heart attack, stroke, cancer, and especially breast cancer. In emergency departments and hospitals, sepsis (severe infection) is often missed.


What Causes Diagnostic Error?

There are many factors involved in diagnostic errors. Lack of knowledge is sometimes, but least often the problem. It’s often more because of poor communication between provider and patient, how the provider draws a conclusion, problems with communication between providers, an incomplete medical history, provider fatigue or overwork, and sometimes the biases in the provider’s thinking.


What Can I Do As A Patient To Reduce My Chances of Experiencing Diagnostic Error?

SIDM advocates for more research and education directed to this important and relatively untapped area. Patients need help knowing how best to navigate the complex healthcare system and communicate useful information with healthcare providers. For starters, the patient community within SIDM suggests:

  1. Track your symptoms in a symptom diary. Our Patient Toolkit will help you.
  2. Note where your symptoms are located on or in your body. Create a timeline for when the symptoms started, what makes them worse or better, and if there is associated pain. Share this information with your doctor.
  3. Prepare questions in advance of your appointment with your doctor. This allows you to think about what you want out of the appointment. Document answers to your questions.
  4. Gather copies of your pertinent medical records such as blood work results, MRI, CT scan, surgery and procedure reports. Keep copies for yourself in a file at home. You can bring what you need to a new doctor.
  5. Ask your doctor questions about a proposed diagnosis, such as, "Are there any other possible diagnoses for my symptoms?" (Feel free to reference our Patient Toolkit above).

We welcome feedback on this resource. Please help the SIDM Patient Committee to improve this resource by sending your comments to

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