Medication Error Reporting Doesn't Indicate Patient Safety

By Sophie Blackshaw
Monday, 23 March, 2015

Hospitals' incident data may have significant shortcomings, especially as a basis for monitoring safety over time and between sites, a comparative study at two Australian hospitals has found.
The study, led by Professor Johanna Westbrook of Macquarie University’s Australian Institute of Health Innovation, found no relationship between the number of reported medication incidents and the ‘actual’ rate of prescribing and medication administration errors observed.
During the study researchers studied medication errors occurring at two large Sydney teaching hospitals by reviewing patient records and observing nurses administering drugs to patients to find out how many and what kinds of errors were being made, if staff detected these errors, and then if errors were reported to the hospitals’ incident reporting systems.
They also assessed how the two hospitals differed in terms of the medication error rates observed versus the errors actually reported by staff.
“The hospital with the higher number of incident reports had lower ‘actual’ prescribing errors and vice versa. Thus in this instance the higher number of medication incidents reported reflected a lower patient risk,” said Professor Westbrook.
“This means using the frequency of medication incident reports of errors to compare patient risk or performance quality within or between hospitals is unreliable," she said.
"New approaches including data mining of electronic clinical information systems are required to support more effective medication error detection and to provide the data needed to develop safer practices. We also support the notion that encouraging the reporting of incidents is an element in creating a safety culture likely to support improved care.”
The researchers reviewed 3291 patient records to identify prescribing errors (e.g. wrong drug, dose or strength) and evidence of their detection by staff.  Errors during the administration of medications to patients were identified from a direct observational study of 180 nurses administering 7451 medications to 1397 patients across the two hospitals.  Severity of errors was classified, and those likely to lead to patient harm were categorised as ‘clinically important’.
Of the 12,567 prescribing errors identified, 539 or 4.3% were clinically important. There was evidence that staff had detected 21.9% (118) of these clinically important errors, but very few (7, 1.3%) were reported to the hospitals’ incident systems. The remaining 78.1% (n=421) failed to be detected, although it is possible that staff detected some of these errors but no information to this effect was recorded in patients’ records.
Of the medication administration errors, most (79%) were procedural (e.g. failing to check a patient’s identification before administering a drug). One or more clinical errors (e.g. wrong dose) occurred in 27.4% of drug administrations, and in 10.2% the errors were rated as clinically important, with the potential to cause patient harm. None was reported to the incident systems
Around half of all adverse medication events are preventable, thus better identification and reporting of errors can allow for the design of interventions to more effectively reduce harm to patients

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