NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What To Do About Medical Mistakes

March 15, 2002

As early as 1955, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association pointed to a frequency of "major toxic reactions and accidents" due to treatment, estimated to be 5 percent in a series of hospitalized patients.

In 1991, the New England Journal of Medicine published two articles documenting a 4 percent rate of treatment complications in the U.S.

  • The 1991 reports found that the overall system of care delivery -- rather than the misdeeds of individuals -- are often the core problem.
  • Experts say that over the past 10 years, the standardization of equipment, supplies and processes, and the automation of ordering and administering medications, have gone a long way toward lowering the number of mistakes.
  • Some medical specialists contend that human error rarely leads to disastrous outcomes unless it is a part of a chain of events that spirals toward the disaster.
  • Equipment malfunction, incorrect drug dosages, misreading of orders, human fallibility or incompetence are all -- in the vast majority of cases -- put right by the alertness and compensating qualities of medical professionals working together.

Checks and rechecks are the heart of an efficient medical system in hospitals and must be relied upon to protect against human error. Some medical experts warn that such complex systems probably need an overhaul at major care institutions throughout the country.

Source: Sherwin B. Nuland (Yale School of Medicine), "Medical Malpractice: Blame the System," Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2002.


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