Poll finds many in Massachusetts have firsthand experience with a medical error


More than half made an effort to report it

For immediate release: December 2, 2014

Boston, MA – This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the tragic death of Betsy Lehman, a health care reporter for the Boston Globe. She died from a medical error during her hospital treatment in Massachusetts.

A new poll conducted in Massachusetts two decades later finds that the problem of medical errors still exists, with nearly one in four Massachusetts adults (23%) reporting that they have personally been involved in a medical error situation in the past five years. This includes those who believe that a preventable medical error was made in their own care or in the care of someone close to them where they were very familiar with the care that person was receiving.

“Medical errors” were defined to poll respondents as the following: “Sometimes when people receive medical care, mistakes are made. These mistakes sometimes result in no harm; sometimes, they may result in additional or prolonged treatment, disability, or death. These types of mistakes are called medical errors.”

About half of those involved in a medical error situation (or 13% of total Massachusetts adults) said the medical error resulted in serious health consequences for the individual. Most of these medical errors (75%) occurred while the affected individuals were being treated at a hospital. Massachusetts residents believe that the more important cause of medical errors is mistakes made by individual physicians and nurses (52%) rather than by hospitals or clinics where they work (33%).

The types of errors varied widely. The most common were a perceived misdiagnosis relating to the person’s medical condition (51%), and being given the wrong test, surgery, or treatment (38%). About a third of the public (35%) perceive the problem of medical errors as a serious one in the Commonwealth.

“These results suggest that if the Massachusetts public were more aware of the extent of these real-life problems, there would be even more citizen calls for action,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard School of Public Health and co-director of the poll.

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The poll finds that many chose to report errors to others. Among those who said that they or a person close to them experienced a medical error in the last five years, 54% acknowledged that they or the person close to them reported the error to someone else, 37% did not, and 9% were not sure. The person or place to which the individual reported the medical error varied. The most common person or place was to a health professional where the error occurred (79%). The least frequently mentioned was to a government agency (8%). Some individuals reported their concerns to more than one person or place.

An important question is why those involved in a medical error situation chose to report or not to report the error to someone else. Those who said that they reported the error offered a mix of reasons behind their decision. The most frequently mentioned was to prevent the same error from happening to someone else (90%). The least frequently mentioned was to receive financial compensation for the harm caused by the error (17%).

Reasons for not reporting the error also varied. The most common reason was that they did not believe it would do any good (65%). The least frequently mentioned was fear that their physician would stop seeing them (13%). Of note, more than a third (36%) said that they did not report the error because they did not know how to report it.

The poll found there is overwhelming public support for the principle of more transparency in this area. More than nine in ten felt that hospitals (96%), physicians (94%), and nursing homes (97%) should be required to report medical errors to a state agency.

This survey was conducted by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at the Harvard School of Public Health. The project director was Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP. The research team also included John M. Benson, Research Scientist and Managing Director of HORP, Justin M. Sayde, Administrative and Research Manager, and Kirstin W. Scott, Research Fellow. HORP designed the survey in collaboration with the Betsy Lehman Center and the Health Policy Commission, and HORP was solely responsible for its analysis.

Interviews were conducted via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) by SSRS of Media, PA, September 2­ – 28, 2014, among a representative sample of 1,224 Massachusetts adults age 18 and older. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 4.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size, cell phone/landline use and demographics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, and region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

This survey was commissioned by the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction and the Health Policy Commission, both independent Massachusetts state agencies. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of either requesting organization.

photo: iStockphoto.com

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Todd Datz


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