Patient safety is not enough: targeting quality improvements to optimize the health of the population

Ann Intern Med. 2004 Jan 6;140(1):33-6. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-140-1-200401060-00009.


Ensuring patient safety is essential for better health care, but preoccupation with niches of medicine, such as patient safety, can inadvertently compromise outcomes if it distracts from other problems that pose a greater threat to health. The greatest benefit for the population comes from a comprehensive view of population needs and making improvements in proportion with their potential effect on public health; anything less subjects an excess of people to morbidity and death. Patient safety, in context, is a subset of health problems affecting Americans. Safety is a subcategory of medical errors, which also includes mistakes in health promotion and chronic disease management that cost lives but do not affect "safety." These errors are a subset of lapses in quality, which result not only from errors but also from systemic problems, such as lack of access, inequity, and flawed system designs. Lapses in quality are a subset of deficient caring, which encompasses gaps in therapeutics, respect, and compassion that are undetected by normative quality indicators. These larger problems arguably cost hundreds of thousands more lives than do lapses in safety, and the system redesigns to correct them should receive proportionately greater emphasis. Ensuring such rational prioritization requires policy and medical leaders to eschew parochialism and take a global perspective in gauging health problems. The public's well-being requires policymakers to view the system as a whole and consider the potential effect on overall population health when prioritizing care improvements and system redesigns.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Health Priorities
  • Health Services / standards*
  • Humans
  • Patient Care / standards*
  • Quality of Health Care*
  • United States