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Errors and Healthcare

Errors and Healthcare


Errors and Healthcare


Patient safety is a serious public health issue. Like obesity and motor vehicle crashes, harms caused during care have significant mortality, morbidity, quality-of-life implications, and adversely affect patients in every care setting.[1][2] 

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published a landmark in Patient Safety: a report titled “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” This report found that at least 44,000 people, and perhaps as many as 98,000 die each year in hospitals as the result of medical errors.[3]

In the report's wake, organizations across the globe created several initiatives to improve Patient Safety. In the U.S., Congress passed legislation to reduce medical errors by 50 percent in five years. Money was spent to hire quality and safety officers. The public focused on errors. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) began to adjust payments based on quality measures, and published star ratings on its website for patients to compare hospitals. Healthcare professionals and the public became aware of the need to reduce harms in hospitals, including adverse drug events, preventable deaths, and pressure ulcers/injuries.[1]

Although Patient Safety has advanced in important ways since the report by the Institute of Medicine, work to make care safer for patients has progressed at a rate much slower than anticipated.[1][2] 

How safe are patients these days? 

Table 1 below illustrates a snapshot of recent facts that underscore the need for clinicians, patients, healthcare organizations and government to continue to focus on Patient Safety.

Table 1. Recent Facts in Patient Safety
  • It is estimated that there is a 1 in 3 million risk of dying while traveling by airplane. In comparison, the risk of patient death occurring due to a preventable medical accident, while receiving health care, is estimated to be 1 in 300 in the world (WHO, 2019).[2] 
  • Estimated hospital-related death due to medical error in the U.S. vary from 163,156 deaths/year [4] to 440,000 deaths/year [5]
  • The most common Medicare hospital-acquired conditions (HACs) are adverse drug events, pressure ulcers/injuries, falls, and catheter-associated urinary tract infections (AHRQ).[4]
  • Globally, as many as 4 out of 10 patients are harmed while receiving health care in primary and outpatient settings. The most detrimental errors are related to diagnosis, prescription and the use of medicines. (WHO, 2019).[2]    
  • Inaccurate or delayed diagnosis is one of the most common causes of patient harm and affects millions of patients.[2]  

Understanding definitions in Patient Safety - not everything is a medical error

The relatively new field of Patient Safety has its own jargons and definitions. Understanding these definitions is the first step for clinicians and Wound Care and/or Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Services to create safer practice environments. 

Table 2. Important Definitions in Patient Safety (National Patient Safety Foundation) [1]
  • Adverse drug event: An adverse event involving medication use. 
  • Adverse event: Any injury caused by medical care. Examples include pneumothorax from central venous catheter placement, anaphylaxis to penicillin, and postoperative wound infection. Identifying something as an adverse event does not imply “error,” “negligence,” or poor quality care. It simply indicates that an undesirable clinical outcome resulted from some aspect of diagnosis or therapy, not an underlying disease process. Preventable adverse events are the subset that are caused by error.
  • Error: An act of commission (doing something wrong) or omission (failing to do the right thing) that leads to an undesirable outcome or significant  potential for such an outcome. For instance, ordering a medication for a patient with a documented allergy to that medication would be an act of commission. Failing to prescribe a proven medication with major  benefits for an eligible patient (e.g., low-dose unfractionated heparin as venous thromboembolism prophylaxis for a patient after hip replacement surgery) would represent an error of omission.
  • Near-miss: “Near-miss” event is an unplanned occurrence that does not result in injury, illness, or damage, but had the potential to do so. 
  • Harm: An impairment of structure or function of the body and/or any deleterious effect arising therefrom, including disease, injury, suffering, disability and death, and may be physical, social, or psychological.
  • Just culture: A culture that recognizes that individual practitioners should not be held accountable for system failings over which they have no  control. A just culture also recognizes many individual or “active” errors  represent predictable interactions between human operators and the  systems in which they work. However, in contrast to a culture that touts  “no blame” as its governing principle, a just culture does not tolerate  conscious disregard of clear risks to patients or gross misconduct (e.g.,  falsifying a record, performing professional duties while intoxicated).
  • Patient safety: Patient safety refers to freedom from accidental or preventable injuries produced by medical care. Thus, practices or interventions that improve patient safety are those that reduce the occurrence  of preventable adverse events.
  • Safety culture: The safety culture of an organization is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies,  and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and the  style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management. Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the  importance of safety, and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive  measures (Health and Safety Commission 1993). Safety culture refers to both (a) the intangible sharing of the safety value  among organization members and (b) the tangible results of this shared  value in the forms of behavior and structure (Groves 2014).
  • Total systems safety: Safety that is systematic and uniformly applied (across the total process) (Pronovost et al. 2015).

What factors adversely affect Patient Safety and lead to errors? 

It is interesting, if not alarming that some 20 years after the Report was published that many of the same problems are occurring, without significant improvement. If we dissect the various errors, adverse events, and harms, we may come across the following underlying factors leading to gaps in Patient Safety:  

  • Weak Safety Culture: The Joint Commissions Sentinel Event Database identified “leaderships failure to create an effective safety culture” as a contributing factor to adverse events. In essence, a leader who is committed to prioritizing and making patient safety visible through every day actions is a critical part of creating a true culture of safety.[6]  Maintaining a safety culture requires leaders to consistently and visibly support and promote everyday safety measures.[7] The report states that Inadequate Leadership contributes to the occurrence of Adverse Events in many ways, for example:
    • Insufficient support of patient safety event reporting [8]
    • Lack of feedback or response to staff and others who report safety vulnerabilities [8]
    • Allowing intimidation of staff who report events [1]
    • Refusing to consistently prioritize and implement safety recommendations
    • Not addressing staff burnout [9][10]
  • Poor system designs and organizational factors, delays in care [11]
  • Inappropriate/ insufficient/ outdated education and training  [12]
  • Gaps in transition of care, absence of multidisciplinary approach [12]
  • Inadequate/ insufficient communication among the personnel directly involved in wound treatment and with patients and caregivers  [12]
  • Inadequate/ incomplete medical records documentation: proper documentation is essential for continuity of care. Also, providers depend on documented medical history in order to provide accurate diagnoses and care plans.[13]

Patient Safety, errors and liability in Wound and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Programs

Factors that adversely affect Patient Safety such as the ones stated above can lead to errors and subsequent lawsuits. In analyzing the profile of recent insurance claims, a provider of liability insurance coverage for nurses found that the majority of lawsuits had allegations related to treatment and care. Those were followed by allegations related to assessment, monitoring, patients’ rights/professional conduct, and medication administration.[11] 

Specific examples of common allegations against wound care providers are listed below [13]

  • Failure to diagnose wounds appropriately. For instance:
    • Failure to making a timely, proper diagnosis of infection or peripheral artery disease, leading to foot amputation
    • Failure to diagnose malignancy manifesting as a non-healing ulcer
    • Failure to detect expanding hematoma caused by puncture wound in a patient who returns to the clinic with excruciating pain, gets discharged with pain medication only, and returns with abscess 
  • Failure to administer appropriate care. For instance: 
    • Maintaining the same initial care plan despite worse response to initial treatment, leading to infection and leg amputation
    • Use of antibiotic cream to treat blisters on leg despite allergy history, leading to severe allergic reaction and leg amputation 
    • Failure to treat an infected surgical leg, leading to disfigurement and impaired gait
  • Failure to keep adequate documentation. For instance: 
    • Allegation of negligence by the healthcare professional that cannot be defended due to lack of complete documentation of care provided to patient. 
    • In some states in the U.S. clinicians may be directly liable for breach of his/her duty to maintain records 
  • Failure to communicate (and document) care instructions, risks and potential outcomes, or obtain consent from patient. For instance: 
    •  Failure to provide (or document) post discharge care instructions to a patient who presented to the emergency department with an animal bite that subsequently evolved to gangrene and required partial amputation of finger.

What actions can be implemented to improve Patient Safety and reduce errors? 

Wound care and/or hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) clinicians and Wound Care and/or HBOT Services can take actions to provide optimal care and reduce the potential for errors, and thus decrease risks for malpractice lawsuits.[11] Effective leadership and availability of a competent and compassionate workforce is a prerequisite for the provision of safe care.[2] 

For governments, organizations, healthcare institutions and clinicians 

The National Patient Safety Foundation has provided guidance for governments, organizations, healthcare institutions and clinicians for achieving total systems safety (Table 3).  

Table 3. Eight Recommendations for Achieving Total Systems Safety (adapted from National Patient Safety Foundation)[1]
  1. Ensure that leaders establish and sustain a safety culture
    • For instance, develop playbooks, policies and procedures that foster safety
  2. Create centralized and coordinated oversight of patient safety
    • For instance, implement collaborative improvement efforts in patient safety across the care continuum
  3. Create a common set of safety metrics that reflect meaningful outcomes
    • For instance, metrics that reinforce successful transition of care such as percentage of referred patients for whom the primary care clinician gave patient written information on reason for referral or consultation
  4. Increase funding for research in patient safety and implementation science
    • For instance, encourage organizations that have successfully established safety innovations to share with other organizations
  5. Address safety across the entire care continuum
    • For instance, identify and implement best practices for safety improvement across the care continuum
  6. Support the health care workforce
    • For instance, provide tools and training to enhance clinical decision making
  7. Partner with patients and families for the safest care
    • For instance, provide patient education materials
  8. Ensure that technology is safe and optimized to improve patient safety
    • For instance, design health IT to facilitate communication and  coordination with the patient and family

For wound care and HBOT clinicians and services

  • To strengthen education and training to minimize medical errors:
    • Follow evidence-based clinical practice guidelines and current best practices. Keep abreast of the latest advances in medical science, as failing to do so can result in legal liability.[13][11] 
    • Ensure policies and procedures highlighting Patient Safety are in place and followed.  Policies and procedures are essential to Wound Care and/or HBOT Services, as they provide a road map and promote safe practices.[14]
    • Leverage technology to access knowledge on-demand at the point-of-care [2]
  • To enhance and streamline communications among healthcare team, across the continuum of care
    • Provide timely, accurate communication, and document what is being communicated. [11]
  • To enhance communications and engage patients and caregivers:


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NOTE: This is a controlled document. This document is not a substitute for proper training, experience, and exercising of professional judgment. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the contents, neither the authors nor the Wound Reference, Inc. give any guarantee as to the accuracy of the information contained in them nor accept any liability, with respect to loss, damage, injury or expense arising from any such errors or omissions in the contents of the work.


  1. . National Patient Safety Foundation. Free From Harm: Accelerating patient safety improvement 15 years after To Err Is Human. 2015 . 2016;.
  2. World Health Organization. Seventy-second World Health Assembly - Global action on patient safety. Report by the Director-General . 2019;.
  3. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Quality of Health Care in America, Kohn LT, Corrigan JM, Donaldson MS et al. . 2000;.
  4. Kavanagh KT, Saman DM, Bartel R, Westerman K et al. Estimating Hospital-Related Deaths Due to Medical Error: A Perspective From Patient Advocates. Journal of patient safety. 2017;volume 13(1):1-5.
  5. James JT. A new, evidence-based estimate of patient harms associated with hospital care. Journal of patient safety. 2013;volume 9(3):122-8.
  6. . National Association for Healthcare Quality. Call to action: Safeguarding the integrity of healthcare quality and safety systems. . 2012;.
  7. Sorra J.. Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture 2014 User Comparative Database Report. (Prepared by Westat, Rockville, MD, under Contract No. HHSA 290201300003C). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. AHRQ Publication No. 14-0019-EF . 2014;.
  8. Leonard M and Frankel A. . How can leaders influence a safety culture? The Health Foundation Thought Paper. . 2012;.
  9. Stewart K, et al. et al. Unprofessional behavior and patient safety. The International Journal of Clinical Leadership. . 2011;volume 17():93-101.
  10. . Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Joy in Work . 2016;.
  11. Aviles F. Jr.. Let's Be Frank: Liability Lessons for The Wound Care Clinic & Nursing Services Today's Wound Clinic. 2017;.
  12. Filipović M, Novinscak T et al. [Errors in wound management]. Acta medica Croatica : casopis Hravatske akademije medicinskih znanosti. 2014;volume 68 Suppl 1():69-73.
  13. Halpern N.J.L. & Ravitz J.R.. Malpractice Liability Considerations for Wound Clinics Today's Wound Clinic. 2017;.
  14. Aviles F. Jr. Regulating Safety in the Outpatient Wound Clinic Today's Wound Clinic. 2019;volume 13(1):.
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