We characterize the ability of electrical impedance tomography (EIT) to distinguish changes in internal conductivity distributions, and analyze it as a function of stimulation and measurement patterns. A distinguishability measure, z, is proposed which is related to the signal-to-noise ratio of a medium and to the probability of detection of conductivity changes in a region of interest. z is a function of the number of electrodes, the EIT stimulation and measurement protocol, the stimulation amplitude, the measurement noise, and the size and location of the contrasts. Using this measure we analyze various choices of stimulation and measurement patterns under the constraint of medical electrical safety limits (maximum current into the body). Analysis is performed for a planar placement of 16 electrodes for simulated 3D tank and chest shapes, and measurements in a saline tank. Results show that the traditional (and still most common) adjacent stimulation and measurement patterns have by far the poorest performance (by 6.9 ×). Good results are obtained for trigonometric patterns and for pair drive and measurement patterns separated by over 90°. Since the possible improvement over adjacent patterns is so large, we present this result as a call to action: adjacent patterns are harmful, and should be abandoned. We recommend using pair drive and measurement patterns separated by one electrode less than 180°. We describe an approach to modify an adjacent pattern EIT system by adjusting electrode placement.