Is the Medical Error Situation Getting Better?

Wayne J. Guglielmo, MA


May 20, 2016

Fewer Medical Errors Than in the Past

Medical errors remain a very serious problem in the United States, where they are the leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, as study findings recently published in BMJ[1] indicate.

But by one measure at least, doctors and other healthcare providers may be committing fewer medical errors today than in the past—a trend that has held more or less steady since 2004. These findings are included in the recently released Chartbook on Patient Safety.[2] The Chartbook is part of a larger report to Congress issued by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), one of the 12 federal agencies that make up the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In its latest Chartbook, AHRQ tracked medical malpractice payment reports (MMPRs)—"one way to flag potential medical errors"—to the National Practitioner Data Bank, an electronic depository of medical malpractice payments and other adverse actions against doctors and other providers. According to AHRQ, between 2004 and 2014, the number of those reports decreased by 28%, from 17,641 to 12,699. This declining trend held steady for every year except 2013, when there was a slight increase in the number of reports.

Since 2005, the decline in inpatient-related MMPRs has slightly outpaced the drop in outpatient-related reports, although that trend was temporarily halted in 2013, when the number of inpatient reports was slightly higher than in 2012.

AHRQ found that for the 10-year period, most payments were related to alleged errors in treatment, diagnosis, and surgery, which accounted for 28.0%, 27.8%, and 24.1% of all reports, respectively. Mistakes in these areas of medical service were followed in declining order by errors in obstetrics, medication, monitoring, anesthesia, equipment or products, behavioral health, and intravenous and blood products.

Harm to patients as a result of alleged medical errors ranged from emotional injury to death. Death accounted for more than one third of the alleged errors in monitoring, diagnosis, medication, and anesthesia. More than one half (57.0%) of all obstetric payments were for allegations of permanent severe harm. And most of the behavioral health-related payments were for emotional harm (45.7%) or death (33.8%).


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