Background: Physicians are being asked to report errors from primary care, but little is known about how they apply the term "error." This study qualitatively assesses the relationship between the variety of error definitions found in the medical literature and physicians' assessments of whether an error occurred in a series of clinical scenarios.
Methods: A systematic literature review and pilot survey results were analyzed qualitatively to search for insights into what may affect the use of the term error. The National Library of Medicine was systematically searched for medical error definitions. Survey participants were a random sample of active members of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and a selected sample of family physician patient safety "experts." A survey consisting of 5 clinical scenarios with problems (wrong test performed, abnormal result not followed-up, abnormal result overlooked, blood tube broken and missing scan results) was sent by mail to AAFP members and by e-mail to the experts. Physicians were asked to judge if an error occurred. A qualitative analysis was performed via "immersion and crystallization" of emergent insights from the collected data.
Results: While one definition, that originated by James Reason, predominated the literature search, we found 25 different definitions for error in the medical literature. Surveys were returned by 28.5% of 1000 AAFP members and 92% of 25 experts. Of the 5 scenarios, 100% felt overlooking an abnormal result was an error. For other scenarios there was less agreement (experts and AAFP members, respectively agreeing an error occurred): 100 and 87% when the wrong test was performed, 96 and 87% when an abnormal test was not followed up, 74 and 62% when scan results were not available during a patient visit, and 57 and 47% when a blood tube was broken. Through qualitative analysis, we found that three areas may affect how physicians make decisions about error: the process that occurred vs. the outcome that occurred, rare vs. common occurrences and system vs. individual responsibility.
Conclusion: There is a lack of consensus about what constitutes an error both in the medical literature and in decision making by family physicians. These potential areas of confusion need further study.