Patient Safety

The Facts

The Global Patient Safety Crisis

Background on the Issue

Globally, preventable complications following medical care contribute to more deaths than people dying from HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB) combined. It is estimated that over three million people die every year, and deaths have increased during the pandemic due to overwhelmed health systems across the world. Much of this harm is preventable and all these people die needlessly.

In the United States, it is alarming that medical errors are the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. This last year, 2020, revealed that COVID-19 took that place but as we see the light at the end of the tunnel and we move to a “post-pandemic world” medical errors will go right back up to number three.

This issue affects us all, no matter our age or race, or the size of our bank accounts. We do know that people of color experience harm more frequently when they seek health care and we must unite to address this epidemic. We see black mothers affected at alarming rates but also see celebrities affected – like Joan Rivers who sadly passed due to medical error and Dennis Quaid’s twins who luckily survived preventable medical error.

Together we can find solutions and bridge this major gap in our healthcare system.

Fast facts:

  • Globally our hospitals are still being overwhelmed by the global pandemic.
  • Patient and health worker safety are in grave danger.
  • Before the COVID-19 pandemic began it was estimated that globally more than 8,220 people every day were dying in hospitals in ways that could have been prevented. That’s 6 people per minute, dying due to unsafe care. 
  • Our caregivers, nurses, doctors, and respiratory therapists, took the brunt and became patients due to the lack of system preparedness.
  • If we had made the safety of our health system for both caregivers and patients our number one priority many lives would have been saved. We must learn from this, we must act to make safety our top priority and we must ensure this never happens again.
  • There’s no single villain to blame, it’s the systems that have been set up ineffectively and the lack of transparency in delivering care.
  • When we don’t talk about medical errors openly and honestly, the same mistakes happen again and again. Silence impedes learning and perpetuates preventable harm, too often resulting in unnecessary harm and deaths.

This is unacceptable. This could affect you or a loved one tomorrow.

Public Poll Results

A recent survey conducted by the Patient Safety Movement Foundation in April of 2021 revealed that:

  • Surprisingly, 87.3% of respondents had heard little or nothing about medical error in their communities.
  • Only 60% had heard of medical error and could actually identify the common definition of the term.
  • 58.1% of respondents said they are personally worried about medical error every time they have to seek care.
  • 22% of respondents said they knew someone personally impacted by unsafe care.
  • 57% of respondents felt that most medical errors could be prevented.

For more insight into the results of the poll view our whitepaper and infographic.

Frequently Asked Questions

The World Health Organization defines Patient Safety as:

“the absence of preventable harm to a patient during the process of health care and the reduction of risk of unnecessary harm associated with health care to an acceptable minimum. An acceptable minimum refers to the collective notions of given current knowledge, resources available and the context in which care was delivered weighed against the risk of non-treatment or other treatment.”

Although there’s an inherent risk in giving care, we know that the following are needed to drive safe care, every time, for every patient:

  • Organizational leadership capacity
  • Clear policies and procedures
  • Data collection to drive real-time improvements
  • Proper staffing with skilled health workers
  • Patients and family members engaged by health workers as valuable members of the healthcare team

The term medical error may be new to you. A medical error is a preventable adverse effect of care, whether or not it is evident or harmful to the patient. This might include an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis or treatment of a disease, injury, syndrome, behavior, infection, or other ailments. Medical errors often harm and sometimes cause death. Many are preventable.

“Even if an error is small, it is an error – and when we ignore the ones we survive, we make it easier for it to happen again and again with maybe more severe outcomes the next time.”– Ilene Corina, BCPA, President & Patient Safety Advocate, Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy

The examples below help you to understand what common medical errors are but this list is anything but complete.

Examples of Preventable Errors:

  • Your son tests positive for COVID-19 and is admitted to the hospital. Due to the lack of masks, your son’s caregiver isn’t able to stop the spread of the infection and is also infected.
  • Your grandmother goes into the hospital for a hip replacement and gets an infection at the site of her surgery and dies five days later.
  • Your neighbor has an asthma attack during allergy season and goes to the emergency department for relief. The medication they give to your neighbor is 10x’s stronger than it should be and he dies.
  • Your brother is in a skateboarding accident, hits his head, and becomes unconscious. In the hospital, they put a tube in his trachea, and it becomes dislodged and he suffers brain damage.

Instead of “who” let’s explore “what” is to blame.

Rather than looking at who to blame it’s important to think about why errors occur. 

It’s important to remember that the people who care for us when we seek care do not try to inflict harm – the majority of those who care for us are well-intentioned and want to help and heal. They don’t wake up that day and think “Today, I’m going to give Mr. Patel the wrong dose of a medication.” They often make mistakes when the systems that surround their workflows fail.

Most medical errors are caused by system failure, not as a result of a single individual human error. Going back to the example of Mr. Patel being given the wrong dose of medication, it might have been because the nurse ordered the incorrect amount. He accidentally input 100mg instead of 10mg. The system should prevent these types of mistakes. For example, the pharmacist could have caught the mistake knowing that that dose is highly unusual. They could have called to double-check before dispensing the medication. Again, another check would have been when the nurse received the medication. She should have checked the label. She would have then noticed the error at that point too. And lastly, if the patient or family member at the bedside had been told that they were going to receive 10mg but then hear 100mg, they too could help identify the mistake before it actually reached Mr. Patel. This is just one simple example to show that the systems are put in place to stop human error before it reaches the patient. 

This issue affects us all, no matter our age or race, or the size of our bank accounts. We do know that people of color experience harm more frequently when they seek health care and we must unite to address this epidemic. We see black mothers affected at alarming rates but also see celebrities affected – like Joan Rivers who sadly passed away due to medical error and Dennis Quaid’s twins who luckily survived preventable medical error.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began it was estimated that globally more than 8,220 people every day were dying in hospitals in ways that could have been prevented. That’s 6 people per minute, dying due to unsafe care. 

Not only is this problem common, it’s costly. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) believes that 15% of hospital expenditures and activity in OECD countries can be attributed to treating safety failures. We’re spending billions if not trillions of dollars addressing patient safety issues after they’ve already happened and harmed people, tearing apart families and impacting our economy. Other studies estimate that medical errors cost our U.S. economy between $9.3-958, billion – yes, that’s a HUGE range. And these studies are a decade old. So it could be trillions of dollars if we are talking about the economy today in 2021.