Error, blame, and the law in health care--an antipodean perspective

Ann Intern Med. 2003 Jun 17;138(12):974-9. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-138-12-200306170-00009.


Patients are frequently harmed by problems arising from the health care process itself. Addressing these problems requires understanding the role of errors, violations, and system failures in their genesis. Problem-solving is inhibited by a tendency to blame those involved, often inappropriately. This has been aggravated by the need to attribute blame before compensation can be obtained through tort and the human failing of attributing blame simply because there has been a serious outcome. Blaming and punishing for errors that are made by well-intentioned people working in the health care system drives the problem of iatrogenic harm underground and alienates people who are best placed to prevent such problems from recurring. On the other hand, failure to assign blame when it is due is also undesirable and erodes trust in the medical profession. Understanding the distinction between blameworthy behavior and inevitable human errors and appreciating the systemic factors that underlie most failures in complex systems are essential for the response to a harmed patient to be informed, fair, and effective in improving safety. It is important to meet society's needs to blame and exact retribution when appropriate. However, this should not be a prerequisite for compensation, which should be appropriately structured, fair, timely, and, ideally, properly funded as an intrinsic part of health care and social security systems.

MeSH terms

  • Compensation and Redress / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Malpractice / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Medical Errors / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control
  • Patient Care / standards
  • Quality Assurance, Health Care / organization & administration
  • Social Responsibility
  • United States