ABSTRACT: Contextual Errors in Medical Decision Making: Overlooked and Understudied
Although it is widely recognized that effective clinical practice requires attending to the circumstances and needs of individual patients-their life context-rather than just treating disease, the implications of not doing so are rarely assessed. What are, for instance, the consequences of prescribing a medication that is appropriate for treating a clinical condition but inappropriate for a particular individual either because she or he cannot afford it, lacks the skills to administer it correctly, or is unable to adhere to the regimen because of competing responsibilities such as working the night shift? Conversely, what are the gains to health and health care when such contextual factors are addressed? Finally, can performance measures be employed and developed for the clinician behaviors associated with contextualizing care to guide improvements in care? The authors have explored these questions through observational and experimental studies to define the parameters of patient context, introduce strategies for measuring clinician attention to patient context, and assess the impact of that attention on care planning, patient health care outcomes, and costs. The authors suggest that inattention to patient context is an underrecognized cause of medical error (“contextual error”), that detecting its presence usually requires listening in on the visit, and that it has significant implications for quality of care. Also described is preliminary work to reduce contextual errors. Evidence suggests that this nascent area of research has significant implications for performance assessment and medical education in addressing deficits in quality of care.