Adverse events (AEs) in medical patients are common, costly, and often preventable. Development of quality improvement programs to decrease the number and impact of AEs demands effective methods for screening for AEs on a routine basis. Here we describe the impact, types, and potential causes of AEs and review various techniques for identifying AEs. We evaluate the use of generic screening criteria in detail and describe a recent study of the sensitivity and specificity of individual generic screening criteria and combinations of these criteria. In general, the most sensitive screens were the least specific and no small sub-set of screens identified a large percentage of adverse events. Combinations of screens that were limited to administrative data were the least expensive, but none were particularly sensitive, although in practice they might be effective since routine screening is currently rarely done. As computer systems increase in sophistication sensitivity will improve. We also discuss recent studies that suggest that programs that screen for and identify AEs can be useful in reducing AE rates. While tools for identifying AEs have strengths and weaknesses, they can play an important role in organizations' quality improvement portfolios.