Diagnostic errors in the intensive care unit: A systematic review of autopsy studies

Bradford Winters, Jason Custer, Samuel M. Galvagno, Elizabeth Colantuoni, Shruti G. Kapoor, Hee Won Lee, Victoria Goode, Karen Robinson, Atul Nakhasi, Peter Pronovost, David Newman-Toker

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Context: Misdiagnoses may be an underappreciated cause of preventable morbidity and mortality in the intensive care unit (ICU). Their prevalence, nature, and impact remain largely unknown. Objectives: To determine whether potentially fatal ICU misdiagnoses would be more common than in the general inpatient population (∼5%), and would involve more infections or vascular events. Data sources: Systematic review of studies identified by electronic (MEDLINE, etc.) and manual searches (references in eligible articles) without language restriction (1966 through 2011). Study selection and data abstraction: Observational studies examining autopsy-confirmed diagnostic errors in the adult ICU were included. Studies analysing misdiagnosis of one specific disease were excluded. Study results (autopsy rate, misdiagnosis prevalence, Goldman error class, diseases misdiagnosed) were abstracted and descriptive statistics calculated. We modelled the prevalence of Class I (potentially lethal) misdiagnoses as a non-linear function of the autopsy rate. Results: Of 276 screened abstracts, 31 studies describing 5863 autopsies (median rate 43%) were analysed. The prevalence of misdiagnoses ranged from 5.5%-100% with 28% of autopsies reporting at least one misdiagnosis and 8% identifying a Class I diagnostic error. The projected prevalence of Class I misdiagnoses for a hypothetical autopsy rate of 100% was 6.3% (95% CI 4.0% to 7.5%). Vascular events and infections were the leading lethal misdiagnoses (41% each). The most common individual Class I misdiagnoses were PE, MI, pneumonia, and aspergillosis. Conclusions: Our data suggest that as many as 40 500 adult patients in an ICU in USA may die with an ICU misdiagnoses annually. Despite this, diagnostic errors receive relatively little attention and research funding. Future studies should seek to prospectively measure the prevalence and impact of diagnostic errors and potential strategies to reduce them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)894-902
Number of pages9
JournalBMJ Quality and Safety
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy


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