More than a decade has passed since the publication of the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human” – a report that highlighted the fact that medical errors cause up to 98,000 deaths and more than a million injuries each year in the United States.

In response to the original report, widespread programs and initiatives were launched to improve patient safety. But have these programs made a significant difference? The answer is, “No,” according to study results published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The retrospective study looked at a random sample of 10 hospitals in North Carolina from 2002 to 2007. Both internal and external reviewers analyzed 100 admissions per quarter. Results indicated that errors remain common, and there has been little evidence of improvement. Whatever improvement was seen was not enough to be statistically significant, the researchers noted.


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In 2,341 hospital admission records, the researchers identified 588 harms to patients. Of those harms, 245 (41.7%) were temporary harms requiring intervention, and 251 (42.7%) required initial or prolonged hospitalization. An additional 17 harms (2.9%) were permanent, and 14 (2.4%) resulted or contributed to a patient’s death.

“Our findings validate concern raised by patient-safety experts in the United States and Europe that harm resulting from medical care remains very common. Though disappointing, the absence of apparent improvement is not entirely surprising,” wrote the researchers.

Background data from the article indicated that only 1.9% of US hospitals have comprehensive electronic medical records, only 9.1% have even basic electronic recordkeeping, and only 17% have computerized prescription ordering.

Other factors, including overwork and sleep deprivation may also contribute to medical errors. The authors state that “achieving transformational improvements in the safety of health care will require further study of which patient-safety efforts are truly effective across settings and a refocusing of resources, regulation and improvement initiatives to successfully implement proven interventions.”