Patient Harm Due to Diagnostic Error of Neuro-Ophthalmologic Conditions

Leanne Stunkel, Rahul A. Sharma, Devin D. Mackay, Bradley Wilson, Gregory P. Van Stavern, Nancy J. Newman, Valérie Biousse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Purpose: To prospectively examine diagnostic error of neuro-ophthalmic conditions and resultant harm at multiple sites. Design: Prospective, cross-sectional study. Participants: A total of 496 consecutive adult new patients seen at 3 university-based neuro-ophthalmology clinics in the United States in 2019 to 2020. Methods: Collected data regarding demographics, prior care, referral diagnosis, final diagnosis, diagnostic testing, treatment, patient disposition, and impact of the neuro-ophthalmologic encounter. For misdiagnosed patients, we identified the cause of error using the Diagnosis Error Evaluation and Research (DEER) taxonomy tool and whether the patient experienced harm due to the misdiagnosis. Main Outcome Measures: The primary outcome was whether patients who were misdiagnosed before neuro-ophthalmology referral experienced harm as a result of the misdiagnosis. Secondary outcomes included appropriateness of referrals, misdiagnosis rate, interventions undergone before referral, and the primary type of diagnostic error. Results: Referral diagnosis was incorrect in 49% of cases. A total of 26% of misdiagnosed patients experienced harm, which could have been prevented by earlier referral to neuro-ophthalmology in 97%. Patients experienced inappropriate laboratory testing, diagnostic imaging, or treatment before referral in 23%, with higher rates for patients misdiagnosed before referral (34% of patients vs. 13% with a correct referral diagnosis, P < 0.0001). Seventy-six percent of inappropriate referrals were misdiagnosed, compared with 45% of appropriate referrals (P < 0.0001). The most common reasons for referral were optic neuritis or optic neuropathy (21%), papilledema (18%), diplopia or cranial nerve palsies (16%), and unspecified vision loss (11%). The most common sources of diagnostic error were the physical examination (36%), generation of a complete differential diagnosis (24%), history taking (24%), and use or interpretation of diagnostic testing (13%). In 489 of 496 patients (99%), neuro-ophthalmology consultation (NOC) affected patient care. In 2% of cases, neuro-ophthalmology directly saved the patient's life or vision; in an additional 10%, harmful treatment was avoided or appropriate urgent referral was provided; and in an additional 48%, neuro-ophthalmology provided a diagnosis and direction to the patient's care. Conclusions: Misdiagnosis of neuro-ophthalmic conditions, mismanagement before referral, and preventable harm are common. Early appropriate referral to neuro-ophthalmology may prevent patient harm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1356-1362
Number of pages7
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • Diagnostic error
  • Medical error
  • Neuro-ophthalmology


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