How common are cognitive errors in cases presented at emergency medicine resident morbidity and mortality conferences?

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Cognitive errors are a major contributor to medical error. Traditionally, medical errors at teaching hospitals are analyzed in morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences. We aimed to describe the frequency of cognitive errors in relation to the occurrence of diagnostic and other error types, in cases presented at an emergency medicine (EM) resident M&M conference.


We conducted a retrospective study of all cases presented at a suburban US EM residency monthly M&M conference from September 2011 to August 2016. Each case was reviewed using the electronic medical record (EMR) and notes from the M&M case by two EM physicians. Each case was categorized by type of primary medical error that occurred as described by Okafor et al. When a diagnostic error occurred, the case was reviewed for contributing cognitive and non-cognitive factors. Finally, when a cognitive error occurred, the case was classified into faulty knowledge, faulty data gathering or faulty synthesis, as described by Graber et al. Disagreements in error type were mediated by a third EM physician.


A total of 87 M&M cases were reviewed; the two reviewers agreed on 73 cases, and 14 cases required mediation by a third reviewer. Forty-eight cases involved diagnostic errors, 47 of which were cognitive errors. Of these 47 cases, 38 involved faulty synthesis, 22 involved faulty data gathering and only 11 involved faulty knowledge. Twenty cases contained more than one type of cognitive error. Twenty-nine cases involved both a resident and an attending physician, while 17 cases involved only an attending physician. Twenty-one percent of the resident cases involved all three cognitive errors, while none of the attending cases involved all three. Forty-one percent of the resident cases and only 6% of the attending cases involved faulty knowledge. One hundred percent of the resident cases and 94% of the attending cases involved faulty synthesis.


Our review of 87 EM M&M cases revealed that cognitive errors are commonly involved in cases presented, and that these errors are less likely due to deficient knowledge and more likely due to faulty synthesis. M&M conferences may therefore provide an excellent forum to discuss cognitive errors and how to reduce their occurrence.





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