Hospital patients define medical errors much more broadly than the traditional clinical definitions of medical errors. The patient definition of medical errors includes communication problems, responsiveness and falls, according to a new study published in the January 2007 issue of the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

The findings point out the need for physicians and other health care professionals to clarify what patients mean when they talk about an “error” or “mistake.” The study of more than 1,600 patients at 12 Midwestern hospitals also shows the importance of explaining exactly what is meant by the term “medical error” if patients are to be effectively engaged in programs to prevent them.

The study—“Patients’ Concerns About Medical Errors During Hospitalization”—concludes that most patients felt a high level of medical safety, but 39 percent experienced concern about at least a single type of medical error during their hospitalization. Certain groups of patients were more likely to be concerned about medical errors, such as middle-aged patients, parents of pediatric patients and blacks. In addition, patients who experience longer lengths of stay, more severe illnesses or were admitted through the emergency department were likely to experience more concerns. Patients who received care in small and rural hospitals reported the fewest types of concerns, regardless of the severity of illness. The authors of the study, led by Thomas E. Burroughs, Ph.D., at St. Louis University , and his collaborators at Washington University and elsewhere, note that programs to educate patients to play a more active role in preventing errors may need to be tailored to effectively address the fears and concerns of each patient.

“The study underscores that patients and clinicians can have different views of the things that constitute a medical error,” says Dr. Burroughs. “For patients, clear communication and responsiveness are particularly important. If these are lacking, patients may view this as a medical error. It is important that clinicians recognize these differences, and the importance of communication and responsiveness.”

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