Study looks at errors in primary care

August 1, 2004

Seemingly trivial errors made in the primary care setting can have serious consequences for patients, including emotional distress, temporary or permanent injury, and even death, according to a recent report based on 15 years of malpractice claims. The researchers of the report reviewed nearly 50,000 malpractice claims made against primary care physicians between 1985 and 2000, and identified 5,921 cases involving medical errors.

Diagnostic mistakes (2,003 errors) were the most common underlying cause of errors, followed by failing to monitor or supervise a patient (972 errors), reported American Medical News (5/3/04). Problems with records was the top contributing factor leading to errors in general (439 errors) and to death (156 errors).

The report's findings are based on data from the Physician Insurers Association of America's Data Sharing Project. Considering the source, experts urge caution in drawing conclusions about primary care errors and patient harm.

"This is a study of malpractice claims, not of injuries or errors. You must not equate the two. Claims capture a very small fraction of incidents, and most importantly, not a random or representative fraction," Lucian Leape, MD, patient safety pioneer and adjunct professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, told AMNews.

The report, whose researchers are from the Robert Graham Center in Washington, D.C., was published in the April edition of Quality and Safety in Health Care.