New insight into the public’s perception of medical malpractice has been released from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The report, commissioned by the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction and the Health Policy Commission was commissioned in part to help understand the current state of patient safety in Massachusetts following the death of Betsy Lehman, a health-care reporter for the Boston Globe.

In the fall of 2014, a poll was conducted, focusing on six issues:

  1. What have been Massachusetts residents’ real-life experiences with patient safety/medical error issues over the past five years?
  2. Did patients who experienced a medical error report the error to someone else, as has been suggested they should do in many expert reports?
  3. Does the public seek information about patient safety and quality of care performance when choosing a hospital or physician for their care?
  4. Do patients pay attention to safety concerns when they make decisions on where they will be hospitalized?
  5. What are the public’s current attitudes about the seriousness of patient safety/medical error problems in Massachusetts today?
  6. Does the public support greater state government activities to improve patient safety and reduce medical errors in the future?

About a quarter of Massachusetts adults reported being involved with a medical error in the past five years; half of these errors resulted in serious health consequences, according to the poll results. Three-quarters of the errors occurred while the person was being treated at a hospital; however, those surveyed believe that the more important cause of medical errors is mistakes made by individual health-care providers (52%) rather than by hospitals or clinics where they work (33%).


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While only 54% of patients who experienced a medical error reported it, the vast majority of those who reported the error said that the reason they did so was that they wanted to prevent the same error from happening to someone else.

The public does not generally seek information about patient safety when choosing a hospital or provider, but the public overwhelmingly supports more transparency related to medical errors. Read the full report.

Ann Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, N.Y.