Most Mistakes in the Emergency Department Caused by Human Error

Fran Lowry

September 18, 2010

September 17, 2009 — Most of the mistakes in the emergency department (ED) that have the potential to compromise patient safety are caused by human error, according to a study published online September 18 in BMC Emergency Medicine.

"[EDs] are challenging hospital settings with regard to patient safety. There is an increased sense of urgency to take effective countermeasures in order to improve patient safety," Marleen Smits, MD, from the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research, Utrecht, and colleagues write. "This can only be achieved if interventions tackle the dominant underlying causes."

The aim of this study was to examine the nature and causes of unintended events in EDs and the relationship between type of event and causal factor structure.

The study evaluated medical errors in the EDs of 10 hospitals in the Netherlands (1 university hospital, 3 tertiary teaching hospitals, and 6 general hospitals) for 8 to 10 weeks. ED staff members were asked to report all unintended events, no matter how trivial or commonplace, that could have harmed or did harm a patient.

A total of 522 events were reported, ranging from 46 to 71 per ED, for an average of 52 reports. Most of the reports (85%) were made by nurses; resident physicians or consultants reported 13% of the unintended events, and clerical staff reported 2%. The reporter was directly involved in 83% of the unintended events. Most occurred during daytime hours (44%); 34% occurred during evening and night, and for 22% of the unintended events, the time of occurrence was unknown or unspecified by the reporter.

Most errors occurred during medical examinations or lab tests (36%). More than half of the unintended events (56%) had consequences for the patient, and in 45% of these instances, the patient suffered some inconvenience, such as prolonged waiting time. One third of patients received suboptimal care, such as a delay in starting antibiotic treatment. The consequences of error were more severe in the 8% of patients who required an extra intervention, the 6% of patients who suffered pain, and the 3% of patients who suffered a physical injury, Dr. Smits and colleagues write.

Most root causes of error were human (60%), followed by organizational (25%) and technical (11%) causes. Nearly half of the root causes could be attributed to other departments either in or outside of the hospital.

In citing limitations to their study, the investigators note that, because the reporting was not anonymous, it is possible that certain mistakes were underreported. "This may have biased the results towards the reporting of less significant events, events without consequences for the patient, and errors originating in other departments, because these are 'safer' to report."

In addition, most errors were reported by nurses, and therefore the study results give information about events that are mainly related to nursing care and less to care by residents and specialists in the ED.

Although the majority of errors had no consequences for the patient or resulted in only minor inconveniences, their accumulated effect on patient well-being is likely to be large, the authors write. They conclude: "Event reporting gives insight into diverse unintended events. The information on unintended events may help target research and interventions to increase patient safety. It seems worthwhile to direct interventions on the collaboration between the ED and other hospital departments."

Dr. Smits and colleagues have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

BMC Emerg Med. Published online September 18, 2009.

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