Background: In a sample of 30,195 randomly selected hospital records, we identified 1133 patients (3.7 percent) with disabling injuries caused by medical treatment. We report here an analysis of these adverse events and their relation to error, negligence, and disability.
Methods: Two physician-reviewers independently identified the adverse events and evaluated them with respect to negligence, errors in management, and extent of disability. One of the authors classified each event according to type of injury. We tested the significance of differences in rates of negligence and disability among categories with at least 30 adverse events.
Results: Drug complications were the most common type of adverse event (19 percent), followed by wound infections (14 percent) and technical complications (13 percent). Nearly half the adverse events (48 percent) were associated with an operation. Adverse events during surgery were less likely to be caused by negligence (17 percent) than nonsurgical ones (37 percent). The proportion of adverse events due to negligence was highest for diagnostic mishaps (75 percent), noninvasive therapeutic mishaps ("errors of omission") (77 percent), and events occurring in the emergency room (70 percent). Errors in management were identified for 58 percent of the adverse events, among which nearly half were attributed to negligence.
Conclusions: Although the prevention of many adverse events must await improvements in medical knowledge, the high proportion that are due to management errors suggests that many others are potentially preventable now. Reducing the incidence of these events will require identifying their causes and developing methods to prevent error or reduce its effects.