Incident reports aren’t very helpful. Why are they still being filed in hospitals?

Incident reports are frequently submitted by hospital personnel. Did you ever wonder what happens to them? I have.

Over the years, I estimate that I’ve heard of hundreds of such reports being filed, but rarely have I heard of a problem being solved or for that matter, any action being taken at all.

In fact, I don’t even know where they went or who dealt with them. When I was a department chairman, I sat on quality assurance and risk management committees. Yet we never discussed individual incident reports.

The original intent of incident reports was to identify patient harms and increase patient safety.

According to a 2009 post by patient safety expert Dr. Bob Wachter, hospital incident reports are a spinoff from the Aviation Safety Reporting System which had successfully used them for identifying potential safety issues such as near misses.

At Dr. Wachter’s hospital, San Francisco General, about 20,000 incident reports were filed every year. That is about half of what the Aviation Safety Reporting System receives per year, and San Francisco General Is only one of about 6,000 hospitals in the United States.

Dr. Wachter feels that analyzing incident reports is not worth it. He estimates that each incident report creates about 80 minutes of work times 20,000 reports, which equals about 26,600 hours of wasted time. He also estimated that about one fourth of U.S. hospitals do nothing with incident reports. That saves time but renders the reports useless.

He says an even bigger problem is that incident reports in his hospital fail to capture most events that harm patients.

That has also been my experience. I think most incident reports were filed by people wanting to “cover their asses” and most of the reported incidents were minor. A reference in Wachter’s article states that most incident reports are submitted by nurses with only about 2 percent by doctors.

Incident reports can backfire too. From a 2002 Medscape article: “In some states, under certain conditions, the incident report is considered confidential and cannot be used against the nurse practitioner in a lawsuit. However, if copies are made or the chart reflects that an incident report was completed, the incident report can then be subpoenaed by the patient and used against the defendants in court.”

And from the Louisiana State University School of Law: “The nonjudgmental nature of an incident report is very important because in most cases the incident report will be discoverable in litigation. An accusatory remark in an incident report may gain unintended weight in a legal proceeding.”

Since incident reports generate a massive amount of wasted time, fail to identify most events that harm patients, are frequently ignored, and can possibly have a negative effect on lawsuits, why are they still being filled out by the thousands?

“Skeptical Scalpel” is a surgeon blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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