How difficult is it to measure medical errors?

It’s not as easy as you think.

In this piece from Slate, two physicians question the numbers circulating in the media that sensationalize medical mistakes. For instance, when citing the Institute of Medicine’s popular assertion that close to 100,000 patient deaths are preventable, they say that, “had [the researchers] used a different calculation method, the number of estimated deaths would have been less than 10 percent of the original.”

Determining what exactly is a medical error is challenging, particularly when distinguishing an avoidable injury from an adverse complication.  Which may be one reason why “encouraging a ‘culture of safety’ to promote an atmosphere in which staff members can discuss safety concerns freely or requiring hand-washing to prevent the spread of germs—have been shown to have no real effect on your chance of leaving the hospital alive.”

It’s easy to read the headlines and be led to believe that preventable errors are a leading cause of patient deaths. And yes, any figure greater than zero is too many.

But realize there is nuance behind the numbers, and that our methods to measure patient safety are grossly imperfect.