The Institute of Medicine is credited with bringing widespread attention to the issue of patient safety with the publication of "To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System." Published in 2000, the report estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die in the U.S. each year as a result of medical error. Recent studies estimate that the incidence and implications of medical error and harm may indeed be higher.

Health care consumers may well wonder, how is that possible? The simple answer is that health care is complicated, and safety lapses can occur when there is a single breakdown in a complex chain of events. Today, health professionals and researchers recognize that humans are prone to error, that faulty systems are often to blame for gaps in patient safety, and that everyone—from the patient to the care provider to the hospital CEO to the environmental services department—has a role to play in ensuring the practice of safe care.

Overcoming challenges

“Today, health professionals and researchers recognize that humans are prone to error, that faulty systems are often to blame for gaps in patient safety, and that everyone—from the patient to the care provider to the hospital CEO to the environmental services department—has a role to play in ensuring the practice of safe care.”

Despite some remarkable advances in the field, weighty challenges remain: medication errors, health care-associated infections, and even so-called “never” events, such as wrong-site surgery, still occur at unacceptably high levels. As more health services move to the outpatient setting, we need to remain vigilant about the potential for medical error.

We marked Patient Safety Awareness Week earlier this month. It is important to note progress in many areas, such as the use of checklists prior to procedures and for routine care needs, and electronic prescribing, which eliminates misreading of a physician’s handwriting and may improve medication safety. As health reform ushers in new models of care, providers are emphasizing the need to reduce health care-acquired conditions and improve transitions in and coordination of care, when communication gaps can compromise safety.

What you need to know

What do patients or health consumers need to know about patient safety? Mainly, know that you and your family are important members of your  health care team. We all need to accept the responsibility that comes along with that role.

Patients can help their providers by being honest about their health status and practices, asking questions when they don’t understand something, and following up with care plans that both you and your provider have agreed upon. Take time to ask about safety measures at your doctor’s office or hospital, so you can better understand why you are constantly asked your birth date or why you can’t eat before a procedure.

Arm yourself with knowledge. Your providers will appreciate your involvement as their partner in your care.