The challenge of safe and reliable care

Delivering good health care can sometimes be a very complex process involving a primary care doctor, specialists, laboratory technicians, support staff and others who are part of a larger care team. Occasionally, complex systems break down, resulting in mistakes that harm patients. These are often considered "unintended consequences" of care, and they can affect patients no matter where they go for care—from hospitals and surgical centers, to doctors’ offices and nursing homes. 

Research shows that medical errors happen far more frequently than once thought. In a 2014 survey conducted for the Betsy Lehman Center, nearly 1 in 4 Massachusetts adults surveyed said that a preventable medical error was made in their own care or in the care of someone close to them during the prior five years. These errors caused serious health consequences more than half of the time.

National studies have found that as many as 250,000 people die each year from preventable medical harm related to hospitalizations—making medical error the third leading cause of death in the country after heart disease and cancer.

In addition to the burden medical harm places on individuals, researchers estimate that preventable errors increase health care costs by more than $20 billion each year nationwide.

Low awareness among policymakers and the public about the magnitude of medical error presents a significant challenge to mitigating this pressing public health risk.