Medical errors are a serious public health problem and a leading cause of death in the United States. It is challenging to uncover a consistent cause of errors and, even if found, to provide a consistent viable solution that minimizes the chances of a recurrent event. By recognizing untoward events occur, learning from them, and working toward preventing them, patient safety can be improved.
Part of the solution is to maintain a culture that works toward recognizing safety challenges and implementing viable solutions rather than harboring a culture of blame, shame, and punishment. Healthcare organizations need to establish a culture of safety that focuses on system improvement by viewing medical errors as challenges that must be overcome. All individuals on the healthcare team must play a role in making the provision of healthcare safer for patients and healthcare workers.
All providers know medical errors create a serious public health problem that poses a substantial threat to patient safety. Yet, one of the most challenging unanswered questions is “What constitutes a medical error?” The answer to this basic question has not been clearly established. Due to unclear definitions, “medical errors” are difficult to scientifically measure. A lack of standardized nomenclature and overlapping definitions of medical errors has hindered data analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
There are two major types of errors:
Errors of omission occur as a result of actions not taken. Examples are not strapping a patient into a wheelchair or not stabilizing a gurney prior to patient transfer.
Errors of the commission occur as a result of the wrong action taken. Examples include administering a medication to which a patient has a known allergy or not labeling a laboratory specimen that is subsequently ascribed to the wrong patient.
Health care professionals experience profound psychological effects such as anger, guilt, inadequacy, depression, and suicide due to real or perceived errors. The threat of impending legal action may compound these feelings. This can also lead to a loss of clinical confidence. Clinicians equate errors with failure, with a breach of public trust, and with harming patients despite their mandate to “first do no harm.”
Fear of punishment makes healthcare professionals reluctant to report errors. While they fear for patients’ safety, they also dread disciplinary action, including the fear of losing their jobs if they report an incident. Unfortunately, failing to report contributes to the likelihood of serious patient harm. Many healthcare institutions have rigid policies in place that also create an adversarial environment. This can cause staff to hesitate to report an error, minimize the problem, or even fail to document the issue. These actions or lack thereof can contribute to an evolving cycle of medical errors. When these errors come to light, they can tarnish the reputation of the healthcare institution and the workers.
Some experts hold that the term “error” is excessively negative, antagonistic and perpetuates a culture of blame. A professional whose confidence and morale has been damaged as a result of an error may work less effectively and may abandon a career in medicine. Many experts suggest the term “error” should not be used at all. Due to the negative connotation, it is prudent to limit the use of the term “error” when documenting in the public medical record. However, adverse patient outcomes may occur because of errors; to delete the term obscures the goal of preventing and managing its causes and effects.
Errors, no matter the nomenclature, typically occur from the convergence of multiple contributing factors. Public and legislative intolerance for medical errors typically illustrates a lack of understanding that some errors may not, in fact, be preventable with current technology or the resources available to the practitioner. Human factors are always a problem, and identifying errors permits improvement strategies to be undertaken. In particular, blaming or punishing individuals for errors due to systemic causes does not address the causes nor prevent a repetition of the error. The trend is for patient safety experts to focus on improving the safety of health care systems to reduce the probability of errors and mitigate their effects rather than focus on an individual’s actions. Errors represent an opportunity for constructive changes and improved education in health care delivery.
Governmental, legal, and medical institutions must work collaboratively to remove the culture of blame while retaining accountability. When this challenge is met, health care institutions will not be constrained from measuring targets for process improvement, including all errors, even with adverse outcomes.
Healthcare providers want to improve outcomes while reducing the risk of patient harm. Despite provider best efforts, medical error rates remain high with significant disability and death. Preventable medical errors contribute substantially to healthcare costs, including higher health insurance costs per person expenses. Only by health professionals working together will the cost and injury associated with medical errors be mitigated.