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Diagnostic errors in older patients: a systematic review of incidence and potential causes in seven prevalent diseases

Authors Skinner T, Scott I, Martin J

Received 20 September 2015

Accepted for publication 15 February 2016

Published 20 May 2016 Volume 2016:9 Pages 137—146

DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/IJGM.S96741

Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single-blind

Peer reviewers approved by Dr Colin Mak

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Dr Scott Fraser


Thomas R Skinner,1 Ian A Scott,2,3 Jennifer H Martin3,4

1Department of Internal Medicine, Sunshine Coast Health Service District, Nambour Hospital, Nambour, QLD, Australia; 2Internal Medicine and Clinical Epidemiology, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Woolloongabba, QLD, Australia; 3Southern School of Medicine, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia; 4School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, Australia

Background: Misdiagnosis, either over- or underdiagnosis, exposes older patients to increased risk of inappropriate or omitted investigations and treatments, psychological distress, and financial burden.
Objective: To evaluate the frequency and nature of diagnostic errors in 16 conditions prevalent in older patients by undertaking a systematic literature review.
Data sources and study selection: Cohort studies, cross-sectional studies, or systematic reviews of such studies published in Medline between September 1993 and May 2014 were searched using key search terms of “diagnostic error”, “misdiagnosis”, “accuracy”, “validity”, or “diagnosis” and terms relating to each disease.
Data synthesis: A total of 938 articles were retrieved. Diagnostic error rates of >10% for both over- and underdiagnosis were seen in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, stroke/transient ischemic attack, and acute myocardial infarction. Diabetes was overdiagnosed in <5% of cases.
Conclusion: Over- and underdiagnosis are common in older patients. Explanations for overdiagnosis include subjective diagnostic criteria and the use of criteria not validated in older patients. Underdiagnosis was associated with long preclinical phases of disease or lack of sensitive diagnostic criteria. Factors that predispose to misdiagnosis in older patients must be emphasized in education and clinical guidelines.

Keywords: older patient, elderly, overdiagnosis, underdiagnosis, misdiagnosis

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