An analysis of the causes of adverse events from the Quality in Australian Health Care Study

Med J Aust. 1999 May 3;170(9):411-5. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.1999.tb127814.x.


Objective: To examine the causes of adverse events (AEs) resulting from healthcare to assist in developing strategies to minimise preventable patient injury.

Design: Descriptions of the 2353 AEs previously reported by the Quality in Australian Health Care Study (QAHCS) were reviewed. A qualitative approach was used to develop categories for human error and for prevention strategies to minimise these errors. These categories were then used to classify the AEs identified in the QAHCS, and the results were analysed with previously reported preventability and outcome data.

Results: 34.6% of the causes of AEs were categorised as "a complication of, or the failure in, the technical performance of an indicated procedure or operation", 15.8% as "the failure to synthesise, decide and/or act on available information", 11.8% as "the failure to request or arrange an investigation, procedure or consultation", and 10.9% as "a lack of care and attention or failure to attend the patient". AEs in which the cause was cognitive failure were associated with higher preventability scores than those involving technical performance. The main prevention strategies identified were "new, better, or better implemented policies or protocols" (23.7% of strategies), "more or better formal quality monitoring or assurance processes" (21.2%), "better education and training" (19.2%), and "more consultation with other specialists or peers" (10.2%).

Conclusion: The causes of AEs or errors leading to AEs can be characterised, and human error is a prominent cause. Our study emphasises the need for designing safer systems for care which protect the patient from the inevitability of human error. These systems should provide new policies and protocols and technological support to aid the cognitive activities of clinicians.

MeSH terms

  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Diagnostic Errors / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease / epidemiology*
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control
  • Medical Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Quality of Health Care*