studies have looked at the proportion of adverse events attributable to medical error. Due to methodologic challenges, far fewer studies focus on the full range of error—namely, those that result in injury and those that expose the patient to risk but do not result in injury.
The most extensive study of adverse events is the Harvard Medical Practice Study, a study of more than 30,000 randomly selected discharges from 51 randomly selected hospitals in New York State in 1984.30 Adverse events, manifest by prolonged hospitalization or disability at the time of discharge or both, occurred in 3.7 percent of the hospitalizations. The proportion of adverse events attributable to errors (i.e., preventable adverse events) was 58 percent and the proportion of adverse events due to negligence was 27.6 percent. Although most of these adverse events gave rise to disability lasting less than six months, 13.6 percent resulted in death and 2.6 percent caused permanently disabling injuries. Drug complications were the most common type of adverse event (19 percent), followed by wound infections (14 percent) and technical complications (13 percent).31,32
The findings of the Harvard Medical Practice Study in New York have recently been corroborated by a study of adverse events in Colorado and Utah occurring in 1992.33 This study included the review of medical records pertaining to a random sample of 15,000 discharges from a representative sample of hospitals in the two states. Adverse events occurred in 2.9 percent of hospitalizations in each state. Over four out of five of these adverse events occurred in the hospital, the remaining occurred prior to admission in physicians' offices, patients' homes or other non-hospital settings. The proportion of adverse events due to negligence was 29.2 percent, and the proportion of adverse events that were preventable was 53 percent.34 As was the case in the New York study, over 50 percent of adverse events were minor, temporary injuries. But the study in New York found that 13.6 percent of adverse events led to death, as compared with 6.6 percent in Colorado and Utah. In New York, about one in four negligent adverse events led to death, while in Colorado and Utah, death resulted in about 1 out of every 11 negligent adverse events. Factors that might explain the differences between the two studies include: temporal changes in health care, and differences in the states' patient populations and health care systems.35
Both the study in New York and the study in Colorado and Utah identified a subset of preventable adverse events that also satisfied criteria applied by the legal system in determining negligence. It is important to note that although some of these cases may stem from incompetent or impaired providers, the committee believes that many could likely have been avoided had better systems of care been in place.