Friday, July 10, 2009

What is the national medication error rate? What standards are available for benchmarking?

A national or other regional medication error rate does not exist. It is not possible to establish a national medication error rate or set a benchmark for medication error rates. Each hospital or organization is different. The rates that are tracked are a measure of the number of reports at a given institution not the actual number of events or the quality of the care given. Most systems for measuring medication errors rely on voluntary reporting of errors and near-miss events. Studies have shown that even in good systems, voluntary reporting only captures the "tip of the iceberg." For this reason, counting reported errors yields limited information about how safe a medication-use process actually is. It is very possible that an institution with a good reporting system, and thus what appears to be a high error "rate," may have a safer system. For more detailed information see Medication Errors, a book available on our website, and the following articles.

In addition, on June 11, 2002, the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention published a statement refuting the use of medication error rates. The statement, which is posted on the Council's Web site (, states the "Use of medication error rates to compare health care organizations is of no value." The Council has taken this position for the following reasons:

  • Differences in culture among healthcare organizations can lead to significant differences in the level of reporting of medication errors.
  • Differences in the definition of a medication error among healthcare organizations can lead to significant differences in the reporting and classification of medication errors.
  • Differences in the patient populations served by various healthcare organizations can lead to significant differences in the number and severity of medication errors occurring among organizations.
  • Differences in the type(s) of reporting and detection systems for medication errors among healthcare organizations can lead to significant differences in the number of medication errors recorded.

According to the statement, the Council believes that there are no acceptable incidence rates for medication errors. The goal of every healthcare organization should be to continually improve systems to prevent harm to patients due to medication errors. Healthcare organizations should monitor actual and potential medication errors that occur within their organization, and investigate the root cause of errors with the goal of identifying ways to improve the medication-use system to prevent future errors and potential patient harm. The value of medication error reporting and other data gathering strategies is to provide the information that allows an organization to identify weaknesses in its medication-use system and to apply lessons learned to improve the system. The sheer number of error reports is less important than the quality of the information collected in the reports, the healthcare organization's analysis of the information, and its actions to improve the system to prevent harm to patients."

"The Council's recommendations support the concept that, at this time in the patient safety journey," said John R. Combes, M.D., past Council chairperson and senior medical advisor at The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania and the American Hospital Association, "it is more important to create the open environment that encourages the reporting of errors and near errors than to develop less meaningful comparative error rates. The goal for an organization's medication safety programs," he continued, "is to learn as much as possible about active and latent error and through that understanding prevent harm to patients.

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