Principles of Improving Diagnostic Accuracy (Part II of Diagnostic Accuracy Series)

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“There are three constants in life: change, choice and principles.” –Steven Covey

Steven Covey notes that actions and intent flow from principles; they are the foundation used to choose between different courses of action and to decide where to invest energy in self-improvement. The importance of principles extends to specific fields as well, including medicine.

In Part I of this series, we reviewed the extent of diagnostic inaccuracy in medicine, ranging from an error rate of 5% to 50%, depending on the nature of the patient/problem. A key contributor to this inaccuracy is our way of thinking about uncertainty: we are trained to be overconfident in the accuracy of our decisions.

Unfortunately, the other extreme, excessive concern about diagnostic uncertainty, leads less confident clinicians to order excessive laboratory and radiological tests. The Choosing Wisely campaign begins to shine a light on the scenarios where such tests are unequivocally useless but does not provide a framework for unnecessary testing when there is even slight uncertainty.

Last year, the American College of Physicians convened a group of experienced clinicians, teachers, and communications experts to address this challenge of diagnostic uncertainty. The product of this effort is called, “Ten Principles for More Conservative, Care-full Diagnosis.” Here is a brief summary of the first five principles:

  1. Promoting Enhanced Care and Listening. Perform an appropriate and thoughtful history and physical exam. When the diagnosis is unclear, continue collecting the history and evaluating changes in the physical exam at subsequent visits to determine how the patient’s clinical course is unfolding.
  2. Understand Uncertainty. Become comfortable with it, learn how to respond to it, and how to convey it to patients.
  3. Respond Carefully to Symptoms. Balance the natural history of common symptoms (75% – 80% of self, resolve within 4 to 12 weeks) with a consideration of potential psychological causes of symptoms (2/3 of patients with anxiety, depression, or somatoform disorders are undiagnosed), considering both the Social Influencers of Health and the long-term effects of Adverse Childhood Events, which also cause or accentuate symptoms.
  4. Maximize Continuity and Trust. Continuity of care by a primary care clinician is not only the single best predictor of patient satisfaction but also generates the trust needed to address the psychosocial issues mentioned above and to have patients trust the strategy of “watchful waiting” to observe the natural history of symptoms.
  5. Taming the Time Pressures around Patient Visits. Ensure the clinician has adequate time to listen, observe, discuss, and think. Adjust the system and the environment of care, as needed, to support this.

The derivation of these principles, which perhaps seems self-evident, required thought and effort of experts; trying to improve without guiding principles to guide us is disjointed at best. Like moral philosophy, it is the application of principles which is more challenging. Some approaches include taking time to think about how to apply these principles, finding small self-improvements or system changes to move towards achieving them, and telling stories to help reinforce how we approach gaps.

You, as clinical leaders in your settings, have an especially important role to play in helping your clinicians learn and apply these principles. On behalf of your patients, thanks for addressing these challenges in your setting.

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