Medical mistakes harm 1 in 20

The prevalence of medical mistakes in the U.S. has largely been unknown for some time, with patient death estimates ranging from 44,000 to 98,000. Medical mistakes were also named a leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2018.

Now, researchers are homing in on just how many medical mistakes occur and how many are preventable. Their findings were recently published in The BMJ.

British researchers wanted to know the prevalence of preventable patient harm in hospitals, primary care, and various specialties. They used a systemic review and meta-analysis to estimate the prevalence of harm from five electronic databases and a pooled sample of 337,025 patients.

Of the sample, 28,150 patients experienced harmful incidents, and 15,419 were preventable. The prevalence of preventable patient harm was 6%, the study found. Overall harm, including preventable and non-preventable, was 12%.

Among the patients who were harmed, 49% experienced mild harm, 36% had moderate harm and 12% had severe harm.

“Our headline finding is that preventable patient harm is a highly prevalent international healthcare challenge which causes unnecessary patient suffering and can result in several avoidable deaths,” wrote lead author Maria Panagioti, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, and colleagues.  

Preventable harm also comes at a high cost––an excess length of 2.4 million hospital days are attributed to medical errors and $9.3 billion in charges in the U.S.

The findings have several policy implications that can help mitigate the problem. For one, it is known that physician burnout can contribute to patient harms, and initiatives to reduce the causes of burnout can be beneficial to quality of care. However, a more understanding of the determinants of patient harms is crucial to further improve the problem of medical mistakes. Another recent study found that just three diagnostic mistakes accounted for 75% of all malpractice claims.

Some of the biggest areas of patient harm were in surgical specialties, where safety standards could be failing high-risk patients. Clinicians in these specialties may also have to deal with higher pressures of their position that have a negative impact on their personal wellbeing. Other gaps in literature about patient harm could contribute to overall patient harms. Still, more research is needed to understand the drivers of patient harm.