We Know More About Medical Error and the Harm It Creates … But Not Enough

Twelve years ago, Helen Haskell’s son died because of a series of medical errors. That sad episode prompted her to found Mothers Against Medical Error (MAME), which offers support and advice for people who share such tragedy.

Haskell’s ongoing effort to quantify medical errors and the harm they can cause are detailed in her story on Reporting on Health, an online community for people to share information that fosters better media coverage of health and medicine.

You can’t head off medical harm, Haskell contends, until you can identify its reach. Until 2010, she writes, the primary source cited for the frequency of medical harm in the U.S. was a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). As venerable an institution as it is, the IOM collected data for the report from the 1980s and 1990s–old numbers that didn’t fully offer even a sense of what was happening at the end of that decade, much less more than a decade later.

In addition, the IOM reported only on hospital admissions (see our article, “Hospital Errors” ); but medical harm, of course, occurs in outpatient clinics and surgery centers, in physicians’ offices and nursing home, in dialysis clinics and chemotherapy centers — wherever medical care is rendered.

In short, while the IOM metrics were solid, they gave an incomplete picture of the impact of medical harm in the U.S.

In 2010 and 2011, Haskell says, new studies were published by the Health and Human Services Department in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and Health Affairs that advanced the body of harm knowledge.

Employing a system called the Global Trigger Tool developed by the IOM, the studies probe medical records for evidence of potential adverse events. To no one’s surprise, Haskell writes, the newer research found “exponentially greater levels of harm than had been reported earlier by the IOM.


  • more than 1 in 4 hospitalized Medicare patients had suffered an adverse medical event resulting in harm;
  • approximately 180,000 Medicare beneficiaries died every year from their medical care;
  • 1 in 3 patients admitted to three large teaching hospitals suffered medical harm, often more than once;
  • nearly 1 in 5 patients in 10 North Carolina hospitals experienced at least one adverse medical event;
  • a commonly used adverse event detection method-voluntary reporting and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Patient Safety Indicators–was poor; it missed 9 in 10 of the events (Global Trigger Tool found at least 10 times as many confirmed, serious events).

The 1999 report, Haskell reminds, was considered a wake-up call for the health-care system to come to grips with the extent and repercussions of medical errors, but the newer studies showed that from 2002 to 2007 there was no significant change in the rate of harm.

The researchers concluded, “Though disappointing, the absence of apparent improvement is not entirely surprising. Despite substantial resource allocation and efforts to draw attention to the patient-safety epidemic on the part of government agencies, health-care regulators and private organizations, the penetration of evidence-based safety practices has been quite modest.”

This “modesty” was quantified:

  • only slightly more than 1 in 100 U.S. hospitals have implemented a comprehensive system of electronic medical records;
  • only 9 in 100 have even basic electronic record-keeping;
  • physicians-in-training and nurses routinely work hours in excess of what’s proved to be safe;
  • compliance with even simple interventions such as hand washing is poor in many centers.

That’s bad, but, as Haskell notes, we still don’t know how bad-or even if it’s less bad-because the most recent numbers crunched in the newest studies date from 2008; the least current numbers come from 2004. That’s better than numbers from the 1980s, but it’s not the most revealing information. Much has changed since the 1990s, but the tired data don’t tell us what changes increase estimates of harm, and what changes decrease them.

In the intervening years, medicine has become more corporate and more consolidated. Bottom-line pressure has intensified. The incidence of medical encounters has increased, but most occur outside of hospitals, where safety isn’t tracked.

In summary, our collective attention about medical errors and the harm they do has been piqued. But that’s only half the job of actually addressing and minimizing them.

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