Background: Hospital mortality is increasingly being regarded as a key indicator of patient safety, yet methodologies for assessing mortality are frequently contested and seldom point directly to areas of risk and solutions. The aim of our study was to classify reports of deaths due to unsafe care into broad areas of systemic failure capable of being addressed by stronger policies, procedures, and practices. The deaths were reported to a patient safety incident reporting system after mandatory reporting of such incidents was introduced.
Methods and findings: The UK National Health Service database was searched for incidents resulting in a reported death of an adult over the period of the study. The study population comprised 2,010 incidents involving patients aged 16 y and over in acute hospital settings. Each incident report was reviewed by two of the authors, and, by scrutinising the structured information together with the free text, a main reason for the harm was identified and recorded as one of 18 incident types. These incident types were then aggregated into six areas of apparent systemic failure: mismanagement of deterioration (35%), failure of prevention (26%), deficient checking and oversight (11%), dysfunctional patient flow (10%), equipment-related errors (6%), and other (12%). The most common incident types were failure to act on or recognise deterioration (23%), inpatient falls (10%), healthcare-associated infections (10%), unexpected per-operative death (6%), and poor or inadequate handover (5%). Analysis of these 2,010 fatal incidents reveals patterns of issues that point to actionable areas for improvement.
Conclusions: Our approach demonstrates the potential utility of patient safety incident reports in identifying areas of service failure and highlights opportunities for corrective action to save lives.