Experienced and anticipated regret influence physicians’ decision-making. In medicine, diagnostic decisions and diagnostic errors can have a severe impact on both patients and physicians. Little empirical research exists on regret experienced by physicians when they make diagnostic decisions in primary care that later prove inappropriate or incorrect. The aim of this study was to explore the experience of regret following diagnostic decisions in primary care.
In this qualitative study, we used an online questionnaire on a sample of German primary care physicians. We asked participants to report on cases in which the final diagnosis differed from their original opinion, and in which treatment was at the very least delayed, possibly resulting in harm to the patient. We asked about original and final diagnoses, illness trajectories, and the reactions of other physicians, patients and relatives. We used thematic analysis to assess the data, supported by MAXQDA 11 and Microsoft Excel 2016.
29 GPs described one case each (14 female/15 male patients, aged 1.5-80 years, response rate < 1%). In 26 of 29 cases, the final diagnosis was more serious than the original diagnosis. In two cases, the diagnoses were equally serious, and in one case less serious. Clinical trajectories and the reactions of patients and relatives differed widely. Although only one third of cases involved preventable harm to patients, the vast majority (27 of 29) of physicians expressed deep feelings of regret.
Even if harm to patients is unavoidable, regret following diagnostic decisions can be devastating for clinicians, making them ‘second victims’. Procedures and tools are needed to analyse cases involving undesirable diagnostic events, so that ‘true’ diagnostic errors, in which harm could have been prevented, can be distinguished from others. Further studies should also explore how physicians can be supported in dealing with such events in order to prevent them from practicing defensive medicine.