Diagnostic Errors in Pediatric Critical Care: A Systematic Review* : Pediatric Critical Care Medicine

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Diagnostic Errors in Pediatric Critical Care: A Systematic Review*

Cifra, Christina L. MD, MS1; Custer, Jason W. MD2; Singh, Hardeep MD, MPH3; Fackler, James C. MD4

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Pediatric Critical Care Medicine 22(8):p 701-712, August 2021. | DOI: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000002735



To summarize the literature on prevalence, impact, and contributing factors related to diagnostic error in the PICU.


Search of PubMed, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Library up to December 2019.


Studies on diagnostic error and the diagnostic process in pediatric critical care were included. Non-English studies with no translation, case reports/series, studies providing no information on diagnostic error, studies focused on non-PICU populations, and studies focused on a single condition/disease or a single diagnostic test/tool were excluded.


Data on research design, objectives, study sample, and results pertaining to the prevalence, impact, and factors associated with diagnostic error were abstracted from each study.


Using independent tiered review, 396 abstracts were screened, and 17 studies (14 full-text, 3 abstracts) were ultimately included. Fifteen of 17 studies (88%) had an observational research design. Autopsy studies (autopsy rates were 20–47%) showed a 10–23% rate of missed major diagnoses; 5–16% of autopsy-discovered diagnostic errors had a potential adverse impact on survival and would have changed management. Retrospective record reviews reported varying rates of diagnostic error from 8% in a general PICU population to 12% among unexpected critical admissions and 21–25% of patients discussed at PICU morbidity and mortality conferences. Cardiovascular, infectious, congenital, and neurologic conditions were most commonly misdiagnosed. Systems factors (40–67%), cognitive factors (20–3%), and both systems and cognitive factors (40%) were associated with diagnostic error. Limited information was available on the impact of misdiagnosis.


Knowledge of diagnostic errors in the PICU is limited. Future work to understand diagnostic errors should involve a balanced focus between studying the diagnosis of individual diseases and uncovering common system- and process-related determinants of diagnostic error.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Critical Care Medicine and the World Federation of Pediatric Intensive and Critical Care Societies

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