Dr Maria Panagioti, Senior Research Fellow, NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre (PSTRC), University of Manchester
Delivering safe healthcare to patients and preventing patient harm is an international priority. Despite this, patient safety incidents are not uncommon. Around 10 per cent of patients experience a harmful patient safety incident whilst being treated. Such harmful incidents could be due to actions of healthcare professionals, healthcare system failures or a combination of both. Medication errors, misdiagnosis, wrong-site surgery, hospital-acquired infections and in-hospital falls are all examples of serious patient safety incidents which can result in patient harm.
While eliminating patient harm is a desirable goal, in practice it may not always be possible. A certain level of harm is considered inevitable because harm cannot always be predicted. For example, some adverse drug reactions occur in the absence of any error in the medication process and without the possibility of early detection.
Focusing on prevention
This understanding has recently led researchers and policymakers to focus on reducing preventable harm. Although full consensus about the nature of preventable harm has not yet been reached, most working definitions include the idea that preventable harm is identifiable, in that it can be attributed to medical care and modifiable in that it’s possible to avoid by adapting a process or adhering to guidelines. The focus on preventable harm could help policy makers and healthcare practitioners to devise more efficient and reliable plans to predict and prevent patient harm.
There has been a lack of clarity in the literature about the prevalence and main types of preventable harm - and how often severe harm such as death and severe injuries are likely to occur. In response to the need to better understand preventable harm, the General Medical Council commissioned our team to undertake a large systematic review and meta-analysis to understand the nature of preventable patient harm across healthcare settings including hospitals, primary care and specialty settings. The aim of this review is to help the GMC and stakeholders get a better understanding of types, causes and patterns of harm - with a view to identifying ways of mitigating them.
Letting numbers do the talking
We reviewed 149 published studies through this work and our findings in relation to the importance and impact of preventable patient harm were striking:
- Six in 100 patients experience preventable harm and 13% of this preventable harm leads to permanent disability or patient death.
- Medication incidents such as errors in ordering, prescribing and administering medication, and misdiagnoses are the main causes of preventable patient harm.
- Preventable patient harm might also be higher in certain medical specialities such as surgery.
These findings provide useful direction on areas where regulators, the NHS and Government should invest to reduce preventable patient harm. For example, investment in interventions to reduce medication errors (particularly at the stages of prescribing and administration of medication) and preventing misdiagnoses would be encouraged by our findings.
In line with our findings, the importance of improving medication safety is fully recognised by the World Health Organisation who have recently identified Medication Without Harm as the theme for their third Global Safety Challenge. Given the large number of studies we reviewed, the quality and depth of data on preventable patient harm is relatively low. We need to invest in better research and reporting practices to understand which types of patient harm clinicians and healthcare systems can prevent.
In recognition of the importance of patient safety research, and following on from previous research undertaken in Manchester and London already having an impact on NHS frontline services, the NIHR announced funding of three new NIHR PSTRCs. Work began in August at the Centres - located in London, Manchester and Leeds - and their aim is to turn patient safety discoveries into practice.
By understanding the nature of preventable patient harm we can work towards eliminating it – saving lives and reducing unnecessary medical interventions. Investing in reducing key sources of preventable harm and improving reporting standards of future research studies on preventability of patient harm could be a major contribution to the safe care of patients.