An alternative strategy for studying adverse events in medical care

Lancet. 1997 Feb 1;349(9048):309-13. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(96)08268-2.


Background: Data about the frequency of adverse events related to inappropriate care in hospitals come from studies of medical records as if they represented a true record of adverse events. In a prospective, observational design we analysed discussion of adverse events during the care of all patients admitted to three units of a large, urban teaching hospital affiliated to a university medical school. Discussion took place during routine clinical meetings. We undertook the study to enhance understanding of the incidence and scope of adverse events as a basis for preventing them.

Methods: Ethnographers trained in qualitative observational research attended day-shift, weekday, regularly scheduled attending rounds, residents' work rounds, nursing shift changes, case conferences, and other scheduled meetings in three study units as well as various departmental and section meetings. They recorded all adverse events during patient care discussed at these meetings and developed a classification scheme to code the data. Data were collected about health-care providers' own assessments about the appropriateness of the care that patients received to assess the nature and impact of adverse events and how health-care providers and patients responded to the adverse events.

Findings: Of the 1047 patients in the study, 185 (17.7%) were said to have had at least one serious adverse event; having an initial event was linked to the seriousness of the patient's underlying illness. Patients with long stays in hospital had more adverse events than those with short stays. The likelihood of experiencing an adverse event increased about 6% for each day of hospital stay, 37.8% of adverse events were caused by an individual, 15.6% had interactive causes, and 9.8% were due to administrative decisions. Although 17.7% of patients experienced serious events that led to longer hospital stays and increased costs to the patients, only 1.2% (13) of the 1047 patients made claims for compensation.

Interpretation: This study shows that there is a wide range of potential causes of adverse events that should be considered, and that careful attention must be paid to errors with interactive or administrative causes. Healthcare providers' own discussions of adverse events can be a good source of data for proactive error prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Health Services Research / methods
  • Hospitals, Teaching / standards*
  • Hospitals, Teaching / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospitals, Urban / standards*
  • Hospitals, Urban / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease / epidemiology*
  • Length of Stay
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Quality of Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • United States / epidemiology