Editorials

Medical errors: a common problem

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7285.501 (Published 03 March 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:501

It is time to get serious about them

  1. K G M M Alberti, president
  1. Royal College of Physicians of London, London NW1 4LE

    Papers p 517 Letters p 548 Reviews pp 562, 563

    Medical errors continue to dominate newspaper headlines. There is rarely an informed comment on likelihood or cause, rather a tacit assumption that they should never happen—and an implicit conclusion that they are getting more common. What is the truth? Firstly, errors have always happened. Secondly, there has been no clear indication as to how common they are in the United Kingdom—though a pilot study in this week's issue represents a first attempt to quantify the size of the problem (p 517).1 Alongside this is the difficulty of indicating risk. To a bereaved relative the knowledge that there was a 1 in 1000 risk is no consolation—for them it was 1 in 1. In a country where millions are spent every week on the national lottery the concept of risk is obviously alien. What is clear, however, is both that we need to know more about errors and to do more about them.

    How common are errors? Can they be minimised? And how should we tackle risk management? One problem in assessing the frequency of errors is that we are deeply immersed in a blame culture, so it is hard to persuade people …

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