Researchers have found that letting medical students observe first-hand how medical errors and near misses happen can be very instructive in preventing mistakes in their future practice.

An analysis of a pilot program, run between 2008 and 2009 by Johns Hopkins Medical School and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, found that participating medical students had a far greater understanding of why errors occur and what can be done to prevent them after participating in the program. Study results were published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety.

The program was part of a pediatric rotation for second-, third- and fourth-year medical students at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. The medical students followed and observed physicians and nurses doing daily activities in inpatient and outpatient units.

Students witnessed medical errors and close calls in the making and were required to deconstruct the incidences. At the end of each day, students would discuss the near misses they had observed, and talk about ways to avoid them. The students were also encouraged to log errors into the hospital’s electronic record-keeping system, and speak to physicians about potential errors before patients were affected.

The 108 students who took part in the program reported a three times greater willingness to report medical errors at the end of the study, and the majority expressed that they thought the program should be part of the regular medical school curriculum. Students also had a much greater awareness that they themselves were capable of making errors – an understanding that is particularly important in preventing errors. The students were also better able to understand why and how errors happen, and what things contribute to higher risks of errors.

The course has since been incorporated into the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine curriculum.