Steps to take after experiencing a medical mistake

No health care professional goes to work intending to harm patients, yet mistakes do happen, and patients and their families can play a role in improving patient safety.  

If a medical error or other adverse event occurs in your care, it is important for you to work with your care team to make sure that your needs are met and to help them prevent something similar from happening to another patient. Here you will find some basic information on how to talk with your providers about your concerns, report events to the state and other organizations, and find support to help you and your family heal.

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Talking with your care team about a concern or incident

  • ​Why speak up?

    It’s important to talk to someone on your care team if you have concerns about your care. Patients may notice when something seems unusual—even when staff do not. For example, if the pills you usually take are a different color or shape, double-check that your medications weren’t mixed up. Voicing your concerns and asking questions may catch a mistake before it leads to harm.

    Speaking up or asking questions can be uncomfortable, especially if you are not feeling well, are in pain, or are lying in a hospital bed. But open communication can help you stay safe by preventing a small issue from becoming a big problem.

  • When to address the issue and to whom?

    It’s usually best to address a concern in the moment, if possible. For example, if at an office visit, a nurse is ready to give you a shot but you weren't expecting one, ask what the shot is for and whether he or she can double-check that the doctor ordered it for you. There may also be times when it makes more sense to wait and speak with someone else on your care team with whom you feel comfortable and can talk freely. This could be your physician or nurse, the nurse manager of the floor, or a hospital social worker.

    If your complaint isn’t addressed, or you don’t feel comfortable talking directly to someone on your care team, reach out to other staff at the facility. Most hospitals have patient advocacy offices with staff available to meet with patients and discuss their concerns confidentially. These departments may be called "patient relations", "customer service" or another name depending on the hospital.

  • How to communicate?

    Most of the time, start with a face-to-face conversation. And if you can, try to have a family member or friend with you for support and to listen to information from staff. Often, just bringing a concern to the attention of your care team is enough to be sure the issue is addressed. As a partner in your care, you have the right to have your questions and concerns answered respectfully and, to the extent possible with known facts, thoroughly.

What is a patient advocate?

Patient advocates support and promote the rights and needs of patients navigating the health care system. They may work at a hospital, advocacy nonprofit, or social services organization, or they may engage with patients as a private practitioner. Some employers offer support through “employee assistance programs”, including care managers to meet with patients and their providers. In all cases, advocates work to help patients resolve concerns, connect with support services, and participate in decisions involving their own treatment and care.

Reporting a mistake or safety concern

It’s important to report safety concerns for your immediate well-being and for the safety of future patients. If possible, start by notifying your provider so that they can address the risk or incident as quickly as possible. This is usually the most productive and efficient way to resolve the problem. If you are concerned that the clinical staff is not taking action, many organizations have staff who help with patient complaints. In serious cases, you may feel the need to report an incident or other concern to a state or federal agency. Read on to learn more about where and how to report safety concerns.

  • File a complaint directly with the FACILITY where the problem occurred

    A good first step is to report your concern directly to the hospital, doctor's office, or other facility where you are getting care.

    At hospitals, staff in departments such as Patient Relations or Risk Management are trained to work with patient and consumer complaints. See this list for the best contacts at individual hospitals in Massachusetts.

    At surgery centers, nursing homes, and all other facility types, contact someone on the management team to voice your concerns. Many health care organizations have grievance processes for residents and patients to submit complaints, including concerns about unsafe conditions or treatment. See the sidebar for tips on writing a complaint letter.

  • Report the mistake or concern to a STATE AGENCY

    Many state agencies want to know about harmful medical errors and serious concerns for a patient or resident’s well-being. Below, you’ll find information about how to file complaints against hospitals and other facilities.

    Sometimes an individual health care provider should be reported to the state, particularly in cases when you think a doctor, nurse or other member of your care team was negligent, abusive or committed a crime. Instructions for reporting individuals can also be found below.

    If you are unsure where to begin, contact the Department of Public Health at 1-800-462-5540.

    Please note that the information below should not be used for complaints or questions related to billing. Insurance or payment related questions may be directed to the Attorney General’s health care hotline at 1-888-830-6277 run by the AG’s Health Care Division.

    How to file a complaint about your care at a:

    • Hospital
    • Ambulatory surgery center
    • Dialysis center
    • Clinic

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    Report safety concerns and incidents to the Division of Health Care Facility Licensure and Certification at DPH. For accuracy, DPH prefers to receive complaints in writing, using a formal complaint form, when possible. The form may be submitted by either fax or mail to the contact information listed below. A 24-hour complaint line is also available to patients at 1-800-462-5540 or 1-617-753-8150.

    Individuals submitting a complaint on a patient’s behalf must first complete a HIPPA form signed by the patient. See DPH’s consumer complaint instructions for more information.

    Mailing address:

    Division of Health Care Facility Licensure and Certification Complaint Intake Unit 99 Chauncy Street Boston, Massachusetts 02111

    Fax number: 617 753 8165

    How to file a complaint about your care at a nursing home, rest home, or other long-term care facility

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    First report incidents or concerns to DPH using the same complaint form and instructions as those above for hospitals.

    Note that if you have a concern about an assisted living facility, you will instead need to contact the state's Assisted Living Ombudsman program. Begin by making a phone call to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs at 1-617-727-7750 or 1-800-AGE-INFO (1-800-243-4636) to be connected with someone who can help you.

    In addition, you or a representative may also:

    • Contact a Long-term Care Ombudsman. An ombudsman will investigate concerns, provide information and referrals, and advocate for residents’ rights and safety. Ombudsmen are responsible for helping residents in long-term facilities based on the city or town in which the facility is located. Find contact information for your designated long-term ombudsman.
    • Report instances of elder abuse or neglect by calling the state’s Elder Abuse Hotline at 1-800-922-2275. The hotline, run by the state's Executive Office of Elder Affairs, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Abuse includes not only physical or sexual abuse, but also emotional or financial exploitation and neglect by a caregiver.

    How to file a complaint about your care at a mental health facility

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    Mail this complaint form to the state’s Department of Mental Health to report concerns about dangerous, illegal, or inhumane treatment of an individual receiving mental health services. The form should be used for any complaint involving a program or facility that DMH operates, contracts with, or licenses.

    You may also direct questions to the DMH Director of Investigations at 1-617-626-8108 or the agency’s Information and Resource line at 1-800-221-0053.

    Mailing address:

    Department of Mental Health Central Office of Investigations 25 Staniford Street Boston, MA 02114

    How to file a complaint about an ambulance or emergency medical service company

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    Let the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services know about your concern by filling out this EMS complaint form and submitting it via email, fax, or mail at the contact information listed below. For questions about the agency’s complaint process, call 1-617-753-7300.

    Email: OEMS.Complaints@state.ma.us

    Mailing address:

    Office of Emergency Medical Services Mass. Department of Public Health 99 Chauncy Street, 11th Floor Boston, MA 02111 Fax: (617) 753-7320

    How to file a report about an individual health care professional

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    Individual providers, such as doctors and nurses, are licensed by professional boards appointed by the state. These boards ensure that all clinicians who treat patients in Massachusetts are competent professionals. If you believe your provider was negligent in providing your care or behaved in an unprofessional way, you may report your concern to a licensing board using the appropriate form below:

    Doctor | Nurse | Dentist | Pharmacist

    Other licensed providers

    Acupuncturist Audiologist/SpeechLanguage Pathologist Chiropractor Dietician/Nutritionist Genetic Counselor Mental Health Counselor Nursing Home Administrator Occupational Therapist Optometrist Perfusionist (operator of a heart-lung machine) Pharmacy Intern Pharmacy Technician Physical Therapist Physician Assistant Podiatrist Psychologist Rehabilitation Counselor Respiratory Care Therapist

  • Other steps you can take

    Other organizations you may want to contact about serious errors in your care include:

    • Medicare's local contact organization If you are a Medicare patient or you care for one, you may submit complaints about the quality of your care to Massachusetts’s Beneficiary and Family Centered Care Quality Improvement Organization (BFCC-QIO), Livanta, at 1-866-815-5440 (toll-free) or 1-866-868-2289 (Toll Free TTY). Medicare’s website has more information.
    • Health plans You may choose to notify your health insurer when you have concerns about the quality of your care. Contact your plan’s “member services” phone line—usually located on your insurance ID card—to ask about how to report an event or concern.
    • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) If you had a serious drug reaction, or were injured by a medical device, you may report the problem to the federal government. The FDA encourages patients to use its online reporting tool, MedWatch. To start, click “Report as a consumer/patient” on the right sidebar of the MedWatch page and follow the prompts.
    • Joint Commission The Joint Commission is a nonprofit that accredits most hospitals and many other health care organizations. You can report adverse events to the organization using this online form or by email, fax, or mail. The Joint Commission may follow up with the facility about your concern or investigate certain complaints.
    • Office for Civil Rights If you believe that you or someone you care for has been discriminated against by a health care provider because of race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex or religion, you may file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The office also accepts discrimination complaints against state or local health services agencies.

      Submit your complaint to the OCR by email, fax, mail or via its online portal no later than 180 days after it occurred. Click here for detailed instructions and contact information.

Finding support for patients who are harmed

Medical mistakes can be distressing, and sometimes devastating, for patients. Some patients may lose confidence in the health care system or their own providers. Others may need additional treatment or procedures to correct the problem, placing them at greater risk of complications or infections during hospital stays. Patients who are permanently injured by unexpected medical events, as well as their families, may face economic hardship and emotional effects such as depression, anger, or a feeling of isolation. 

If you’ve been impacted by medical error, you are not alone. Organizations such as Medically Induced Trauma Support Services (MITSS) provide support and education to individuals and their families. Based in Massachusetts, MITSS offers a 10-week therapeutic support group led by a clinical psychologist with curriculum covering issues such as trauma response, dealing with family and friends, and the healing process. For more information, call 1-888-366-4877.  You can also find peer-to-peer group forums, as well as information on self-care and patient stories, on the MITSS website.  

Patient advocates can also support you after an adverse medical event. Contact your health care facility to connect with a patient advocate, or ask your employer if there is help for you through an employee assistance program.