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Hughes RG, editor. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2008 Apr.

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Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses.

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Chapter 35Error Reporting and Disclosure

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This chapter examines reporting of health care errors (e.g., verbal, written, or other form of communication and/or recording of near miss and patient safety events that generally involves some form of reporting system) and these events’ disclosure (e.g., communication of errors to patients and their families), including the ethical aspects of error-reporting mechanisms. The potential benefits of intrainstitutional and Web-based databases might assist nurses and other providers to prevent similar hazards and improve patient safety. Clinicians’ fears of lawsuits and their self-perceptions of incompetence could be dispelled by organizational cultures emphasizing safety rather than blame. This chapter focuses on the assertion that reporting errors that result in patient harm as well as seemingly trivial errors and near misses has the potential to strengthen processes of care and improve the quality of care afforded patients.

Reporting Errors

Reporting errors is fundamental to error prevention. The focus on medical errors that followed the release of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System1 centered on the suggestion that preventable adverse events in hospital were a leading cause of death in the United States. This report emphasized findings from the Harvard Medical Practice Study that found that more than 70 percent of errors resulting in adverse events were considered to be secondary to negligence, and more than 90 percent were judged to be preventable.2, 3 The IOM report also emphasized the importance of reporting errors, using systems to “hold providers accountable for performance,” and “provide information that leads to improved safety.” Conceptually these purposes are not incompatible, but in reality they can prove difficult to satisfy simultaneously1 (p. 156). Nonetheless, reporting potentially harmful errors that were intercepted before harm was done, errors that did not cause harm, and near-miss errors is as important as reporting the ones that do harm patients. Patient safety initiatives target systems-related failures that contribute to errors within the complex environment of health care. Because many errors are never reported voluntarily or captured through other mechanisms, these improvement efforts may fail.

Errors that occur either do or do not harm patients and reflect numerous problems in the system,4 such as a culture not driven toward safety and the presence of unfavorable working conditions for nurses. To effectively avoid future errors that can cause patient harm, improvements must be made on the underlying, more-common and less-harmful systems problems5 most often associated with near misses. Systems problems can be detected through reports of errors that harm patients, errors that occur but do not result in patient harm, and errors that could have caused harm but were mitigated in some manner before they ever reached the patient. Reporting near misses (i.e., an event/occurrence where harm to the patient was avoided), which can occur 300 times more frequently than adverse events, can provide invaluable information for proactively reducing errors.6 Analysis of reported errors have revealed many “hidden dangers” (near misses, dangerous situations, and deviations or variations) that point to system vulnerabilities, not intentional acts of clinician performance that may eventually cause patients harm.7

Opinions and experiences of hospital leaders about State reporting systems were solicited from chief executive and chief operating officers of hospitals in six States with a variety of reporting systems: mandatory, nonconfidential; mandatory, confidential; and voluntary systems.8 Questionnaires addressed perceptions of the effect of mandatory systems on error reporting, since it was thought that they reduced the frequency of error reports. Items elicited perceptions on the likelihood of lawsuits, overall patient safety, attitudes regarding release of incident reports to the public, and likelihood of reporting incidents to the States or affected patients based on hypothetical clinical vignettes varying in type and severity of patient injury. Safety was a high priority across hospitals. Most hospital leaders reported that a mandatory, nonconfidential reporting system run by the State deterred reporting of patient safety incidents to internal reporting systems. The majority thought that a mandatory, nonconfidential system encouraged lawsuits. Over half indicated that patients should learn details of errors on request by patients or families. They preferred that individual practitioner and hospital names be kept confidential and that incidents involving serious injury be reported to the State. Most indicated that the State should not release information to patients under certain circumstances. Definitions of reportable events varied by State, bringing hospital leaders to call for specific, national definitions of errors.

Just because an error did not result in a serious or potentially serious event does not negate the fact that it was and still is an error. Since reporting both errors and near misses has been key for many industries to improve safety,6 health care organizations and the patients they serve can benefit from enabling reporting. Reporting sets up a process so that errors and near misses can be communicated to key stakeholders. Once data are compiled, health care agencies can then evaluate causes and revise and create processes to reduce the risk of errors. As such, organizations have implemented strategies, such as staff education, elicitation of staff advice, and budget appropriations, to ease the implementation of patient safety systems and to improve internal (e.g., intrainstitutional) reporting and disclosure to patients and families.

The ramifications of errors that do cause patient harm can provide critical information to inform the modification or creation of policies and procedures for averting similar errors from harming future patients. The position taken by the Joint Commission is that once errors are identified and the underlying factors/problems or “root causes” are identified, similar errors can be reduced and patient safety increased. When both errors and near misses are reported, the information can help organizations better understand exactly what happened, identify the combination of factors that caused the error/near miss to occur, determine its frequency, and predict whether it could happen again. Underreporting and failure to report errors and near misses prevents efforts to avoid future errors and thwarts the organization’s and clinicians’ obligation to inform/disclose to patients about the error.

As patients become more aware of actual and potential errors, they not only want to be informed, they want to know that quality improvement efforts supported by shared learning will prevent similar future errors.9 Patients and the public support error reporting,10, 11 particularly mandatory reporting,12 and want to know that clinicians and organizations acknowledge errors13 to leaders, managers, and peers, and that errors are reported as soon as they are detected.14

Ethical Implications of Reporting and Disclosure

Health care providers are typically so devastated and embarrassed by their mistakes that they may attempt to conceal them or defend themselves by shifting the blame to someone or something else.15 Some attribute failure of honestly acknowledging health care mistakes to providers’ personal difficulty with admitting mistakes and incriminating other providers.16–19 Ethical frameworks operate when health care mistakes are made.20 Respect for patient autonomy is paramount, as is the importance of veracity. Fidelity, beneficence, and nonmaleficence are all principles that orient reporting and disclosure policies. Providers might benefit from accepting responsibility for errors, reporting and discussing errors with colleagues, and disclosing errors to patients and apologizing to them.21

When providers tell the truth, practitioners and patients share trust. The fiduciary responsibility of institutions exists in patients’ and families’ trust that providers will take care of them. If providers cover up errors and mistakes, they do not necessarily stay hidden and often result in compromising the mission of health care organizations. Consistent with their mission, institutions have an ethical obligation to admit clinical mistakes. Professional and organizational policies and procedures, risk management, and performance improvement initiatives demand prompt reporting. When patients, families, and communities do not trust health care agencies, suspicion and adversarial relationships result.18 Likewise, the breach of the principle of fidelity or truthfulness by deception damages provider-patient relationships.22 Fidelity and trust, implicit to the provider-patient relationship, do not coexist with deception.23

Physicians, nurses, and other health care providers have legal and ethical obligation to report risks, benefits, and alternative treatments through informed consent mandates. Legal self-interest and vulnerability after errors are committed must be tempered by the principle of fidelity (truthfulness and loyalty).24–26 This ethical principle has been reinforced by practical lessons learned from errors; especially when an adverse event causes serious harm or even death, there is an ethical and moral obligation to disclose information.27, 28 Candid reports and disclosure of errors by physicians as well as other health care providers (or institutional leadership if the physician refuses to disclose)19 might result in greater patient trust and less litigation.29 Furthermore, it is essential to act after errors are reported, with interventions aimed at protecting the welfare of patients by targeting iatrogenic problems and documenting the care given.

Additionally, the ethical principles of beneficence (doing good) and nonmaleficence (preventing harm) are violated when errors are not reported or disclosed. These ethical principles, beneficence and nonmaleficence, shape caring nursing practice, and caring presupposes that nurses act in the best interests of patients. For example, sharing information and preventing harm to patients through truth telling, regardless of good or bad news, build relationships between elder residents and nursing home staff.30 Putting residents’ interests first represents nurse caring and characterizes relationships in which sharing information, rather than hiding it, surrenders nurses’ control related to withholding information. Thus, failure to disclose health care mistakes can be viewed from the perspective of provider control over the rights of patients or residents.

Error-Reporting Mechanisms

Traditional mechanisms have utilized verbal reports and paper-based incident reports to detect and document clinically significant medical errors; yet the correlation with actual errors has been low.31 The benefits of these reports are dependent upon the design of the system, how and what information is collected, and whether the information is used to inform a sophisticated investigation of specific errors to understand the nature and magnitude of the problem. Additionally, reports can reflect the clinician’s ability to recognize an error and willingness to report it, whether through formal reporting mechanisms or documentation in patient records. A consistent finding in the literature is that nurses and physicians can identify error events, but nurses are more likely to submit written reports or use error-reporting systems than are physicians.

Many types of errors that involve medications, health care acquired infections, and medical devices have been targeted for reporting and dissemination mechanisms.32 In the case of medication errors, errors made by nurses during the administration of medications to patients are more likely to be reported in incident reports than are errors made by the prescribers (e.g., physicians) or distributors (e.g., pharmacists).33 That said, it is important to note that physicians do not necessarily use incident-reporting systems.31

Error-reporting mechanisms may capture only a fraction of actual errors. Research has approached potential errors using direct observation, which, while expensive and not necessarily practical in all practice settings, generates more accurate error reports.34 More recent approaches have been focusing on increasing and simplifying error reporting, and automating the detection of errors, including creating Web-based forms or adapted standard spreadsheets to reveal patterns of errors.35 Many of these efforts have focused on improving physician participation and emphasize voluntary31 and confidential reporting.36 Most have encouraged reports of errors and near misses and shared occurrences with risk managers, other agency leaders, and patient safety specialists.37 Perhaps a combination of reporting mechanisms, both concurrent and retrospective, might improve reporting and ideally result in safer processes.

Some of the challenges in using error-reporting mechanisms are associated with the lack of standard definitions, gaining easy access to databases, and the associated cost of electronic applications.38 The capability of health care organizations’ networks and hardware, the existing policies and reporting processes, including reporting actual errors and near misses, and whether the new system will provide error details to assist quality improvement initiatives must be evaluated.

Patients can also be a source of information for reports about the occurrence of adverse effects associated with medical interventions. In institutional settings, patients can provide information on new symptoms that may not be readily detected by clinician observation or testing. In outpatient settings, it could be argued that when there is no direct communication between patients and their outpatient clinicians, some unplanned emergency department (ED) visits and hospitalizations have been used to determine patients with significant, reportable, and actionable adverse drug reactions (ADRs). Two studies of patients in an outpatient setting found that patients reported more information about ADRs, the majority of which did not warrant an ED visit or hospitalization, when specifically asked, providing clinicians the opportunity to make changes in the patient’s medication therapy. Without the patient’s report of an ADR, clinicians would not know about the majority of ADRs affecting patients.39, 40

Voluntary Versus Mandatory Reporting

The IOM differentiated between mandatory and voluntary reporting of health care errors.41 Voluntary reports may encourage practitioners to report near misses and errors, thus producing important information that might reduce future errors. However, there is concern that with voluntary reporting, the true error frequency may be many times greater than what is actually reported.42 Both of these types of reporting programs can be Web-based and nationally representative. Mandatory and voluntary reporting systems differ in relation to the details required in the information that is reported.

Mandatory reporting systems, usually enacted under State law, generally require reporting of sentinel events, such as specific errors, adverse events causing patient harm, and unanticipated outcomes (e.g., serious patient injury or death. It is estimated that less than half the States have some form of mandatory reporting system for adverse events—a number that is expected to grow in the next few years. One such State-mandated system is created by Pennsylvania’s Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act of 2002 (on the Web at www.mcare.state.pa.us/mclf/lib/mclf/hb1802.pdf).Another example is the New York Patient Occurrence Reporting and Tracking System (NYPORTS), a Web-based, external, confidential, mandatory reporting system that has been in existence since 1998. The focus of NYPORTS is on serious complications of acute disease, tests, and treatments. The system has 9 occurrence categories (aspiration, embolic, burns/falls, intravascular catheter related, laparoscopic, medication errors, perioperative/periprocedural, procedure related, and other statutory events) and 54 specific event codes.43, 44

Sentinel events, such as serious medication errors resulting in deaths, are incidents that can be voluntarily submitted to the Joint Commission in accordance with their Sentinel Event Policy (accessible at www.jointcommission.org/SentinelEvents/PolicyandProcedures), which is based on root-cause analyses. Root-cause analysis is a systematic investigation of the reported event to discover the underlying causes. The Joint Commission’s position on mandatory reporting is that providers who are forced to report errors may not describe the details of the event, since they are motivated by a requirement. Nationally, the Joint Commission’s Sentinel Alerts provide electronic access to selected sentinel events, identify common underlying causes, and recommend steps to prevent future events. The alerts provide clinicians the opportunity to learn about root causes of errors. Sentinel event statistics are available for clinicians to note error trends and root causes.

An example of voluntary external reporting mechanisms, specifically a Web-based, anonymous/confidential system, is the Medication Errors Reporting Program (MERP) of the United States Pharmacopoeia and the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (assessable at www.usp.org/hqi/patientSafety/mer). Reported errors make up the MEDMARX® database, which subscribing hospitals and health care systems can use as part of their quality improvement initiatives. Employees of subscriber organizations enter, review, and release data to a central data repository that is then available for all subscribers to search. Comparisons can be made within institutions of a single health care system and across participating health care systems. The sharing of data allows medication error types, locations in agencies, level of staff involved, products, and facts contributing to errors to be known and serves to alert clinicians to safety hazards. Actual, intercepted, and potential errors are all included. MEDMARX® examines the medication use process, systems, and technologies rather than individual blame and emphasizes the Joint Commission’s framework for root-cause analysis.

Barriers to Error Reporting

Many errors go unreported by health care workers.45 The major concern they have is that self-reporting will result in repercussions.46–48 Providers’ emotional responses to errors inhibit reporting, yet some are relieved when they share the events of the error with patients.49 Health care professionals report feeling worried, guilty, and depressed following serious errors, as well as being concerned for patient safety and fearful of disciplinary actions. They also are aware of their direct responsibility for errors.16, 50 Many nurses accept responsibility and blame themselves for serious-outcome errors.51 Similarly, physicians responded to memorable mistakes with self-doubt, self-blame, and shame.52 The need of clinicians for support may be fulfilled by discussing their mistake with another person. However, many received support most often from spouses rather than colleagues. Instead of bearing the pain of mistakes in silence, clinicians should admit them, share them with peers, and dispel the myth of perfect practice. However, this support might keep disclosure within the disciplinary culture and practice of medicine rather than bringing mistakes to multidisciplinary teams.

Self-reporting errors can be thwarted by several factors. First, clinicians fear career-threatening disciplinary actions and possible malpractice litigation and liability.22, 24, 53, 54 Health care leaders who do not protect reporters of errors from negative consequences reinforce this fear,8, 55 as does the criminalization of fatal health care mistakes.56, 57 Fear of these negative consequences can lead to reporting errors only when a patient is harmed or when the error could not be “covered up”;58 yet more health care providers are vulnerable to legal action if detailed error reports are documented for events that could formerly be concealed.27, 28 Additionally, the moral residue of previous mistakes may also restrict disclosure of errors.59 This residue could be replaced in providers’ memories by efforts encouraging reporting in a nonpunitive milieu60 and incorporating the systems improvements that follow. Clinicians do not want to intentionally harm patients; yet when they conceal errors, they place patients at increased risk of some type of harm.

Second, clinicians working in a culture of blame and punishment do not report all errors, primarily because they fear punishment. A long-held tradition in health care is the “name you, blame you, shame you”61 mantra. Many organizations have been challenged to provide an environment in which it is safe to admit errors and understand why the errors occurred.41 Fears of reprisal and punishment have led to a norm of silence. But silence kills, and health care professionals need to have conversations about their concerns at work, including errors and dangerous behavior of coworkers.62 Among health care providers, especially nurses, individual blame has been the predominant reaction for errors.63 When individuals and organizations are able to move from individual blame toward a culture of safety, where the blame and shame of errors is eliminated and reporting is rewarded, organizations are enabled to institutionalize reporting systems and increase reporting of all types of errors.64, 65 To do so, clinicians and others must know that safety can be improved by nonpunitive reporting of error and that organizational flaws cause errors.1 As communication, collaboration, and safety are inextricably linked in the pursuit of quality care, risk managers, safety officers, and other leaders in health care institutions are encouraging the development of a culture of safety. In a culture of safety, open communication facilitates reporting and disclosure among stakeholders and is considered the norm.20 Yet even in organizations with a culture of safety, creating a nonpunitive environment is a work in progress.66

Third, there is significant variation in how errors are defined, what information is reported, and who should be involved in reporting and mitigating the effects of errors. Differing definitions of errors and near misses and significant differences in reporting—among health care providers working in the same institution and across health care systems—make it difficult to act and prevent similar errors. One of the greatest challenges confronting the patient safety movement is agreeing on standard definitions of what constitutes errors.67 Reporting near misses can facilitate a blame-free approach (a hallmark of a culture of safety) and fewer cultural and psychological barriers. Yet, clinicians who believe that an error or near miss was unimportant or caused no harm, especially if intercepted, might decide that a report of a near miss is not warranted;68–70 near misses are not frequently reported.71

Lastly, error reports are difficult to complete, and feedback about needed system changes to improve safety is not commonly given.55 The lack of standardization in the information that is reported and collected makes comparisons and trending as well as preventing future errors difficult. Implementing and using standardized reports of error events, such as those available in hospital databases, is just one example of an open communication strategy, benefiting both clinicians and ultimately the patients they serve.72 However, the process for reviewing events is not consistently applied nor conducted in matter conducive to providing feedback and improving safety.73

These and other barriers to reporting and disclosing errors must be breached to accomplish safer health care.25 Reporting errors and near misses through established systems provides opportunities to prevent future similar, and perhaps even more serious, errors. Failure to report and speak up about errors and near misses is unacceptable because the welfare of patients is at stake. Investigations into the reporting behaviors of clinicians have found that clinicians are more likely to report an error if the patient was not harmed.74 Clinicians would also be likely to report an error made by a colleague regardless of patient harm.74

Several factors are necessary to increase error reporting: having leadership committed to patient safety; eliminating a punitive culture and institutionalizing a culture of safety; increasing reporting of near misses; providing timely feedback and followup actions and improvements to avert future errors; and having a multidisciplinary approach to reporting.64, 65 Only through reporting errors can nurses and other health care providers learn which system design and operational failures contribute to human fallibilities and subsequently improve the quality of care. Additionally, one study found that physicians, pharmacists, advanced practitioners, and nurses considered the following to be modifiable barriers to reporting: lack of error reporting system or forms, lack of information on how to report an error, and lack of feedback to the reporter.75

Error Disclosure

Disclosure of health care errors is not only another type of error reporting, it is also an account of a mistake. It involves an admission that a mistake was made and typically, but not exclusively, refers to a provider telling a patient about mistakes or unanticipated outcomes. Disclosure addresses the needs of the recipient of care (including patients and family members) and is often delivered by attending physicians and chief nurse executives. However, while physicians’ willingness to disclose errors may be stimulated by accountability, honesty, trust, and reducing risk of malpractice, physicians may hesitate to disclose because of professional repercussions, humiliation, guilt, and lack of anonymity.76

Disclosure also sometimes calls for a formal verbal apology, in some institutions presented in writing by patient safety officers. Often the providers involved in the error apologize. The central element of disclosure is the trust relationship between patients (or residents of long-term care facilities) and health care providers. Agency policies specify the disclosure approach and identify the person—for example, the primary care provider or safety officer—who communicates the error, adverse event, or unanticipated outcome to the patient or resident, or family member. Some institutions make error disclosure mandatory, and some disclose errors on a voluntary basis.

Providers were concerned about disclosure. They felt shame and fear about their mistakes. “Medical missteps” were transformed into clinical mistakes after practice standards were developed; next, malpractice suits followed. As a result, mistakes were subsequently hidden, creating a negative cycle of events.72 Furthermore, physicians’ anxiety about malpractice litigation and liability and their defensive behavior toward patients have blocked individual and group strategies for preventing and reducing medical errors, thus hindering error reduction attempts.22 Hiding errors at times resulted in providers being involved in litigation. The association between hiding errors and reducing costs seemed less certain than formerly believed.29

When patients’ concerns are not addressed, they are more unwilling to return for future care needs77 and follow medical advice, and are more likely to seek malpractice lawsuits.78–80 Several surveys of patients and the general public have found that they believe health care to be only moderately safe and that they are concerned about errors affecting them if the seek care in hospitals.54, 81–84 Specifically, patients are concerned about misdiagnoses, physician errors,85 medication errors, nursing errors,77, 85 wrong test/procedure errors, 85 and problems with medical equipment.77

Another dimension of reporting and disclosing errors is the role patients can have. Patients can understand, perceive the risk of, and are concerned about health care errors. As more is learned about errors, patients and clinicians have opportunities to improve health care quality. Patients want full disclosure86 and to know everything about medical errors that impact them. Disclosure can avert patients seeking another physician and can improve patient satisfaction, trust, and positive emotional response to an error, as well as decrease the likelihood of patients seeking legal advice following the error.87 Patients have the right to know; patients and the public strongly desire disclosure.86, 87 Failure to disclose mistakes and unanticipated outcomes limits opportunities for evaluation of systems and processes, and for sharing knowledge gained by publishing safety alerts across organizations, conducting educational sessions, modifying practice, and offering opportunities for improved performance.88 Disclosure is also an element that contributes to the creation of a culture of safety89 and as such must be accepted as a strategy in health care institutions interested in becoming high-reliability organizations, “those in which error seldom occurs even in dangerous environments”90 (p. 121).

A significant barrier to disclosing errors is the clinicians’ willingness to do so. This may in part be due to the lack of clarity as to exactly what should be disclosed, when the discussion should take place, and who (e.g., a hospital administrator, physician, or nurse) should disclose the error. When it comes to what should be disclosed, research has found that physicians and nurses want to disclose only what had happened,81 but there are no universal rules for doing so.86 Decisions to disclose or not to disclose are complex and depend on how errors are defined and if they are recognized or detected. Health care providers are heavily influenced by their perceived professional responsibility, fears, and training, while patients are influenced by their desire for information, their level of health care sophistication, and their rapport with their provider.91

Both health care providers and patients seem to agree that errors disclosure should take place when patients are harmed and that corrective action should involve systems improvement.91 Other research has found that the likelihood of disclosure increased for physicians, nurses, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) as the severity of the error increased.92 Somewhat conflicting with this is the assertion that patients would suffer additional harm when “unnecessary” information was shared about a mistake.30 Unfortunately, this line of reasoning has its roots in the dubious contention that patients might be more harmed when told the truth as compared with disclosing the mistake.

Physicians have argued that they should be responsible for disclosing errors to the patient.93 This is borne out in some research that has shown that in practice, at least among emergency care providers, nurses were less likely (23 percent to 54 percent) to disclose an error than were physicians (71 percent to 74 percent).92, 94

Because there are instances when error disclosure has been followed by the “victims” seeking further action, the disclosure of errors in practice may not reflect all errors that have harmed patients,95–97 nor all those that could or should have been disclosed. In many instances, patients may be less likely to seek legal action if the error is disclosed by the physician82, 83 and if they do not suspect a cover-up.78 However, it is not known if there is a causal relationship between disclosure of errors and adverse consequences such as litigation.87

Disclosure policies

Written policies on disclosing health care mistakes stand to benefit institutions because they can reduce idiosyncratic responses of reporters.19 Specific policies and systems of error disclosure are preferred over position statements.98, 99 This is because policies stipulate health care personnel to be notified, patient care to be given following the mistake, and the content of the disclosure notification. Plans to care for the patient are also included. “True informed consent can only be as a result of discussion between a patient and physician”19 (p. 155). Such a policy fits within a systemwide approach to quality and safety. Underreporting may be addressed by a standardized patient safety event form, integration of databases for event reporting, ongoing education to reinforce the need for providers to report, and patient and family involvement in care delivery processes.100

A disclosure policy implemented by the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky,91 resulted in liability payments that were more moderate than such payments at similar facilities. The policy required disclosure to patients of unanticipated outcomes (accidents or medical negligence).101 This developing, national VA initiative continued its focus on research and policy related to health care error, error-reporting systems and analysis, and feedback methods. Improving systems of care was the target of the ongoing initiative.102 The VA’s disclosure policy included reporting details of incidents, expressing institutional regret, and identifying corrective actions. Comparable liability payments resulted when contrasted with other VA hospitals. Another solution instituted was the granting of a waiver for practitioners who reported errors. Many voluntary adverse event/health care error-reporting systems created for acute care hospitals have built on the VA reporting system.44 Nonetheless, many health care organizations may not disclose errors to patients,53 although virtually all have traditionally reported errors through paper incident reports that remained internal and confidential. Error-communication strategies are changing, since several States have mandated that health care institutions notify patients about unanticipated outcomes.103

Policies can be supported by advisories, which have historically relied on relatively few contributions from patients. Patients’ responses to drafts of advisories were explored best with Medicare beneficiaries.104 While not specifying advisory content on disclosure of health care errors, recommendations included the involvement of patients and providers. Discussions on patient roles in safety enhancement and the development of protocols for inclusion in safety advisories were encouraged.

The development and implementation of disclosure policies should be part of an organization-wide effort predicated on cultural change that includes open communication, truth telling, and no blame.20, 60 Debate regarding the assignment of blame has not negated the importance of counseling some clinicians when policies are intentionally violated—or prosecuted in the case of criminal behavior. Policies on disclosure, including apologies to patients and families, have been justified; respect for patients and their autonomy prevails as a source and support of patients’ right to information about health care errors. The aforementioned changes for disclosure policies—for example, open communication, truth telling, and no blame—apply to error-reporting systems as well.

Differences between reporting and disclosure

It is important to place health care error-communication strategies, specifically definitions of reporting and disclosure, in context (see Figure 1). The process of reporting errors is sometimes referred to as disclosure of errors, causing confusion. A report of a health care error is defined as an account of the mistake that conveys details of the occurrences, at times implicating health care providers, patients, or family members in error events. Both clinicians and patients can detect and report errors.105 Each report of a health care error can be communicated through established and informal systems existing in health care agencies (internal) and outside organizations (external), and may be written (e.g., electronic or paper) or verbal, voluntary or mandatory (policy driven). The core value supporting reporting is nonmaleficence, do no harm, or preventing the recurrence of errors.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Health Care Error-Communication Strategies

An error report may be transmitted internally to health care agency administrators, managers, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, other caregivers, and agency legal counsel. Reporting is often directly related to risk management activities intended to prevent actual or potential threats of harm. Intrainstitutional or internal reporting examples are incident reports, nurses’ notes, safety committee reports, patient care rounds, and change-of-shift reports. Intrainstitutional reports have increased since the initial IOM report and the elimination of the culture of blame in many health care agencies. Of these, the most common means of reporting serious errors for nurses has been through incident reports, a mechanism that has been criticized as being subjective and ineffective in improving patient safety.106, 107

Extrainstitutional or external reporting systems include accounts submitted to agencies such as the Medical Event Reporting System for Transfusion Medicine (MERS-TM), MERP, the Joint Commission, and various State departments of health, as well databases such as United States Pharmacopeia’s MEDMARX® Reporting System (U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention 2006), as illustrated in Figure 1. Additional reporting methods have been called for, such as databases that allow for analysis and communication of alerts to key stakeholders in single agencies and across systems.

Reporting (providing accounts of mistakes) and disclosing (sharing with patients and significant others) actual errors and near misses provide opportunities to reduce the effects of errors and prevent the likelihood of future errors by, in effect, warning others about the potential risk of harm. Reporting reduces the number of future errors, diminishing personal suffering108 and decreasing financial costs. In contrast, disclosure is thought to benefit patients and providers by supplying them with immediate answers about errors and reducing lengthy litigation.109 Although clinicians and health care managers and administrators feel uncomfortable with disclosure, disclosure is a duty.

Error Reporting and Detecting Strategies

Several strategies have been used to improve error reporting. In a literature review of incident-reporting research published between 1990 and 2000, the effectiveness of chart reviews, computer monitoring, and voluntary reporting were compared. The investigators found that the most adverse drug events were identified through chart reviews; the least effective method was voluntary reporting. The most efficient method of understanding errors was computer-based monitoring because more adverse drug events were found than with voluntary reporting and it took less time than chart reviews.110

A strategy tested in another project, developed within a hospital, used an electronic, anonymous paper report to increase close call (i.e., near miss)incident reporting. Close call categories included blood/transfusions, diagnostic tests/procedures, falls, medications, other treatments, surgery, and therapeutic procedures. The final template included five main screens and was received very positively by providers. A clinical analyst assisted in communicating feedback and describing the etiology of close call situations, and urgent close calls were rapidly communicated. The investigators found that improved reporting systems may encourage providers to report near misses. Once identified and shared with front-line providers, errors may be prevented.111

Several Web-based systems have also been used in hospitals to improve error reporting. One study investigated reported errors, intercepted errors, and data quality after a Web-based software application was introduced for medication error event internal reporting. The reporting system generated occurrence reports, documented anonymously submitted reports, and allowed for the possibility of real-time reporting and more rapid investigation of contributing factors. The investigators found that error reports increased as well as intercepted error threats (near misses), and intercepted nurse, physician, and pharmacist medication errors increased. The details of cause-of-error reporting also increased as did the participation of hospital leadership.112 In another study, Wu and colleagues113 described the use of Web-based internal reporting in the intensive care unit setting. The researchers found that analyzing and disseminating error and near miss data, so that providers are alerted to safety risks, could reduce errors. Additionally, patient safety would most likely improve when providers see the benefits of reporting through systems improvements.113 One other project occurred when leaders at Baylor Medical Center at Grapevine partnered with DoctorQuality to create a Web-based form for reporting errors.114 At the same time, they implemented strategies to change the culture of the organization, supported by education on the use of the reporting system, incident reporting, communication, and feedback information about errors. Investigators found that event reporting doubled, suggesting that even with increased reporting, the actual number of errors may not be identified. Proactive risk management allowed for timely followup, the percentage of errors submitted increased after implementation, and the average days from event to submission shortened.115

Using a voluntary, regional external reporting database and United States Pharmacopeia’s MEDMARX® database increased medication error reports across critical access hospitals.116 Most errors reported to the regional database and MEDMARX® did not result in harm to patients. However, significant differences existed in severity, phase, and types of error when comparing the two external reporting systems. More error reports from the critical access hospital database (Nebraska Center for Rural Health Research) reached patients than did MEDMARX® errors. Increased reporting of potential and near-miss errors by nursing and pharmacy personnel was associated with easily accessible pharmacist availability.

Another strategy to improve awareness of errors is the assessment of medical records to detect errors that were not otherwise reported. Two prospective, cross-sectional studies compared facilitated incident monitoring to retrospective review of patient medical records in hospitals. The first117 compared medical record review to physician reporting prompts by daily electronic reminders for 3,146 medical patients in an urban teaching hospital. The investigators found that the physician reporting method identified nearly the same number (2.7 percent) of adverse events as did the retrospective medical record review (2.8 percent), but the electronic reminders detected more preventable adverse events (62.5 percent vs. 32.9 percent), was less costly than the record review ($15,000 vs. $54,000), and could be integrated in the daily routine through electronic health information technology. The second, smaller study118 compared facilitated discussions to medical record review in one 12-bed intensive care unit (ICU) with 164 patients in an Australian hospital with an established incident reporting system. The investigators found that facilitated discussions, in addition to the incident reporting system, identified more preventable incidents than retrospective medical record review and was not as resource intensive as medical record reviews (50 hours vs. 65 hours). However, medical record review detected some incidents not captured by the incident reporting system.

Research Evidence

Over the past 11 years, research on the reporting of errors among nurses targeted four key areas: (1) description of who reports errors and what errors are and perceived to be reported; (2) barriers to error reporting; (3) disclosure preferences; and (4) reporting systems and frameworks, including the development of effective reporting systems. The researchers used different methods to assess reporting preferences and what was reported, including surveys, retrospectively assessed error reports,116, 119–128 a 2-week journal,129 error scenarios,81, 92, 130 and focus groups.91, 131, 132 One study used a mixture of methods.58 Most of the research included in this analysis involved discussions of reporting involving health care providers using existing systems, while 11 studies assessed the effects of new or revised error-reporting systems.

Who Is Reporting

Verbal, paper-based, electronic, and Web-based error-reporting mechanisms have been used to capture, record, and communicate errors. Nurses were found to report the majority of errors. The proportion of error report submitted by nurses ranged from 67.1 percent133 to 93.3 percent.124 Nurses reported 27 percent more errors than did physicians.134 Physicians submitted 2 percent135 to 23.1 percent, and 9.5 percent were submitted by others.133 Considering the 11 surveys included in this analysis that investigated who submitted error reports, all found that nurses reported the majority of incident reports.36, 46, 106, 120, 123, 124, 133–137

Factors that have influenced the submission of error reports included believing it was beneficial to do so131 and having quality management processes in place.138 Feeling comfortable reporting, working in a climate of patient-centered care, job satisfaction, and the serious nature of the error enabled error reporting.131 In terms of characteristics associated with those likely to report errors, nurses with more than 5 years of experience were more likely to believe there was no value in reporting near misses.106 This contradicts findings from another survey where the frequency of error reporting was found to be higher among nurses with 5 to 10 years of experience.139 Another finding that complicates this notion is that in one survey, nurse managers reported more errors than did staff nurses,139 but this could have been associated with organizational structure rather than ability of staff nurses. Additional characteristics were that nurses providing direct patient care were more likely to report,140 and that pediatric nurses reported medication errors more frequently than adult nurses.141

Compared to physicians, nurses seemed to have more knowledge/awareness of the reporting process/system,106, 132 know what should be reported,69, 142 know when the error should be reported,142 be more likely to have submitted an error/incident report, know how to use an incident report form, and know where to submit the report.106 One survey found that while 98.3 percent of physicians and nurses knew about incident reporting systems within their organizations, nurses were more likely to know how to submit an error report, have experience with submitting an error report, and know where to submit the report.106 Another survey found that 54 percent of residents and 97 percent of nurses knew about their hospital’s error-reporting system, and 13 percent of residents and 72 percent of nurses were likely to use the reporting system.143 Conversely, another survey found that less than 10 percent of physicians and nurses were aware of their State’s mandatory reporting system, and only a small subset of the ones familiar with the system (less than 50 percent of nurses and 20 percent of physicians) had actually submitted a report using the mandatory system.144

Who reported was also be associated with their understanding of what should be reported. One survey of medication administration errors found that nurses acknowledged differences in how reportable errors were defined among staff.145 Similar findings were found in another survey of nurses in Korea, where nurses were not clear as to what should be reported.139

Nurses tended to be more likely to report errors, considering it a professional obligation. One survey of nurses in rural hospitals found that nurses believed they were responsible for reporting errors, getting needed education, recommending changes in policies and procedures to prevent future errors, and participating in investigations of the causes of errors.58 Another found that physicians believed that nurses were responsible for reporting errors.144 Similar findings were found using error scenarios, where nurses believed that error reporting was a professional responsibility and that nurses should report the errors made by other nurses if they did not do so themselves.130 However, another survey found that nurses were more comfortable reporting their own errors than they were of those of colleagues.146 Another found that 54 percent of residents and 91 percent of nurses believed that they would report their own error or someone else’s, and 25 percent of residents and 1 percent of nurses would report the errors of others if they did not like the person who caused the error.143

What Is Reported

What is reported could depend upon the understanding of nurses as to what should be reported, which is associated with how reportable errors and near misses are defined. If nurses, nurse managers, and physicians question the value of reporting because they did not see improved patient safety in practice and policies,132 few errors may be reported. If nurses did not understand the definition of errors and near misses, they were not able to identify or differentiate errors and near misses when they occurred. For example, one very small study gave four error scenarios to 13 perioperative nurses to assess whether they could detect errors and their reporting preferences. The investigators found that 58 percent of the theoretical errors were identified as errors, but only 26.7 percent of them would have been reported.130 However, when nurses were given definitions of errors and near misses, one study indicated that nurses reported 58 percent of errors and 59 percent of near misses.129 Among the respondents, 61 percent reported one error and 38 percent reported making between two and five errors during a 2-week period.

The severity of errors and who is doing the reporting influence which errors are reported. One survey found that 58 percent of nurses did not report minor medication errors.69 Another survey found that while nurses reported 27 percent more errors than physicians, physicians reported more major events and nurses reported more minor events because they had a more “inclusive view.” Both physicians and nurses reported near misses.134 Analysis of error reports in Japan found similar differences in error reporting among different types of clinicians. One study found that nurses and pharmacists submitted more reports of events that were considered minor, while physicians submitted reports when errors were detected and prevented by nurses or pharmacists.123 The other study of error reports submitted by physicians and nurses in a hospital found that 99.5 percent of the reports—the majority of which were submitted by nurses—were for what were considered minor incidents. Additionally, the lag time for reporting major events was 18 percent shorter than it was for minor reports, but 75 percent longer when physicians submitted the error report.124

Several surveys assessed whether errors that resulted in harm to patients were reported. One survey of physicians and nurses in England found that error reporting was more likely if the error harmed a patient, yet physicians were less likely to report errors than were nurses or midwives. Clinicians were less likely to report errors made by senior colleagues, and physicians in particular were unlikely to report violations of clinical protocols, whereas nurses and midwives would.46 A review of error reports found that when an error harmed a patient, 34 percent of the reports were submitted by physicians and 27 percent of the reports were submitted by nurses. When errors did not harm patients, 31 percent of the reports were submitted by nurses and 17 percent were submitted by physicians.133 One survey found that nurses would report errors whether they harmed the patient or not.140 A survey in Korea found that 67 percent of nurses believed they always reported errors that harmed patients.139 A very small study found that reporting errors that harmed patients was a secondary concern for nurses; nurses believed that errors that fell outside the scope of the nurse’s practice should be reported by the responsible individual (i.e., not the nurse).130 A related study found that errors resulting in either patient harm or worker injury were underreported.138 Thus, events that may harm patients are at risk for not being reported.

What is reported may also be associated with whether the reports are confidential or anonymous. Informal reporting mechanisms were used by both nurses and physicians. One survey found that nurses also informally reported to physicians when a dose was withheld or omitted, but they were less likely to formally report the missed dose as an error.142 Nurses also had a greater tendency to informally report errors to nurse colleagues.130 Reviewers found that confidential reports were more complete than anonymous ones, but the types of patient harm did not vary between anonymous and confidential reports.121 Since voluntary reporting depends on health care professionals to report medication errors so that the more realistic frequency and type of errors that happened can be known, several surveys encouraged anonymous responses to identify the barriers to reporting medication administration errors.58, 69, 142, 147–149 While only brief descriptions of the survey instruments were discussed in each of the studies, the surveys did capture error reports that may not have been communicated or known otherwise

Type of Errors Reported

An analysis of error reports found that the most serious reports involved rule violations, management practices, and nonstandardized nursing practices.125 One study found that the majority of error reports involved delays or omissions of medications, diagnostic tests, or necessary/planned procedures; medication errors, and malfunctioning equipment. Ten percent of the reported errors required life-sustaining interventions (61 percent of which resulted from delays/omissions of prescribed nonmedication treatments and necessary planned procedures), and 3 percent might have caused the patient’s death.137

In a study of surgical ICUs, the type of events reported were related to medications, tests, treatments, or procedures.136 Researchers in another study found that 47 percent of reported errors were associated with diagnostic tests, 35 percent with medications, and 14 percent with both diagnostic tests and medications. The investigators believed that 71 percent of these errors were associated with communication breakdowns.121 One study found that nurses generally were more likely to report patient falls than pressure ulcers or near-miss medication errors, and nurses with fewer than 5 years experience were more likely to report deep vein thrombosis.106 Another retrospective analysis of error reports in six Japanese hospitals found that reported error rates were high for prevention of problematic behavior, patient suicide, patient falls, and subcutaneous injections of insulin. A high number of error reports in some hospitals were associated with maintenance of dialysis, endoscopy preparation and assistance, administration of preoperative treatments, and blood transfusions. There were more reported errors in the elderly, hemodialysis patients, and those with problematic types of behavior.125 Another study found that the major types of errors reported were for unsafe conditions or near misses, adverse events that harmed patients, medication/infusion errors, and patient falls.135 In yet another study, researchers found that the majority of reports involved medication errors, surgical errors, falls, and problems with procedures.127

Additionally, the type of errors reported can be associated with characteristics of the patient population. For example, the findings from one survey indicated that medication error rates, which were computed from actual occurrence reports, were higher on pediatric units than adult units.141 Children’s vulnerability to adverse outcomes from medication errors was attributed to weight-based drug dosing, dilution of stock solutions, and immature physiological buffering systems, situations that are unique to children.

Estimations and Perceptions of Error Reporting

Several surveys asked nurses to estimate how many and what types of errors were reported by colleagues and themselves. There was significant variation when nurses were asked to estimate how many errors were reported. Respondents in one survey estimated that an average of 45.6 percent of errors were reported.142 Nurses may not easily estimate how many errors are reported, as indicated in one study where staff nurses were not consistent estimators of medication administration errors.145 Another study of medication errors in 29 rural hospitals in nine States found that less than half of nurses believed that all medication errors were reported,58 while another study found that 44 percent of nurses estimated that 25 percent of medication errors were reported.69 Another survey found that nurses estimated that less than half of all medication administration errors were reported,138 an estimate that is lower than those in other surveys.70, 150–152

Estimation may also reflect where one works as well as one’s experience. In terms of where nurses work, one survey found that nurses working in neonatal ICUs perceived higher reported errors than did those working in medical/surgical units. The mean perceived percentage of reported errors was 46 percent.142 Another survey found that pediatric nurses estimated that 67 percent of medication errors were reported, while adult nurses estimated 56 percent. The stronger the agreement with management-related and individual/personal reasons for not reporting errors, the lower the estimates of errors reported by pediatric nurses.141 In terms of experience, one survey found that staff nurses relied on personal experience to estimate medication administration errors on their unit.145

Other surveys investigated what nurses thought should be reported. One study divided nurses into high- and low-reporting rates; groups differed by definition of what makes up a reportable error, by personal experience when estimating unit error reporting, and by willingness to share occurrence data with other nurses. Also, nurses were surveyed on the perspectives of types of errors that should be reported, the proportion of errors reported, worker safety, and opinions about the work environment and job satisfaction.138 Although nurses indicated that all errors except near misses should be reported, less than half of medication administration errors were reported. Intravenous medication errors were the highest percentage reported events; patient falls were associated with major injuries. Not reporting medication errors was attributed to nurses’ concerns about administrative responses and personal fears such as imagining the poor opinion of their coworkers. Sharps injuries, exposure to body fluids, and back injuries threatened nurse safety. Some questioned hospitals’ quality management processes.

The perceived rates of error reporting may be associated with organizational characteristics. For example, the perceived rates of medication administration error reporting were compared by organizational cultures of hospitals and extent of applied continuous quality improvement (CQI) philosophy and principles.151 As bed size increased, perceived rate of medication administration error reporting decreased. Larger hospitals tended to be more hierarchical in nature. Group-oriented hospital culture (norms and values associated with affiliation and trust, flexibility, a people-oriented culture with concerned and supportive leadership) and higher levels of CQI implementation were positively associated with the estimated overall percentage of medication administration errors reported.

Perceived Barriers to Reporting Medication Errors

There were 15 identified studies that surveyed nurses about their perceptions of what factors (e.g., organizational, process, individual) precluded them from reporting errors. Fourteen of these studies used cross-sectional surveys of nurses,69, 70, 106, 120, 131, 138, 141, 142, 147–151, 153 and all but one of the surveys131 were in hospitals. Of the two studies that used focus groups, one interviewed clinicians in 20 community hospitals,132 the other in ambulatory care settings.131 Several themes emerged from these studies, as illustrated in Table 1. The types of responses given by nurses may have depended upon the questions asked, but that is not known. In all, research findings seem to indicate that, as Wakefield and colleagues151 found, the greater the number of barriers, the lower the reporting of errors.

Table 1

Table 1

Reasons why clinicians do not report and disclose errors and near misses

One survey of nurses in the Midwest found that nurses were able to recognize errors and events associated with intentional wrongdoing related to questionable behavior. Nurses were more apt to report serious errors but not unintentional errors.153

Other clinicians are concerned about reporting barriers as well. In one survey of physicians and nurses, physicians identified twice as many barriers to reporting than did nurses; both identified time and extra work involved in documenting an error. However, nurses were more concerned about anonymity, “telling” on someone else, fear of lawsuits, and the necessity of reporting errors that did not result in patient harm.149

Additional barriers were identified as well. One survey in a State with mandatory reporting found that both physicians (40 percent) and nurses (30 percent) were concerned about the lack of anonymity of reports and that the reports would be used punitively against the individual who submitted the report.144 Another survey of nurses in Korea found that 32 percent were worried that their errors were kept in files; 66 percent felt that their suggestions to improve patient safety were ignored; 83 percent felt that it was by chance that more errors did not happen; 52 percent believed their units had serious patient safety problems; and 56 percent reported problems talking with physicians.139

Five studies provided additional information about reporting barriers for nurses. In a survey of nurses in Taiwan, nurses did not vary in their concerns about the effects of reporting barriers based on factors such as the age of the nurse, type of education, length of experiences, and length of employment. Yet nurses who perceived more error reporting barriers also believed that errors were over- or underreported, compared to nurses who reported that the error reporting rates were accurate. In this study, factors that could thwart error reporting were positively correlated with the power hierarchy and face-saving concern. On the other hand, the better the work environment, quality management, and relationships with peers, the fewer the perceived barriers for error reporting.147

Factors about the organization’s culture may be barriers to error reporting. In one survey of clinicians in rural hospitals, the majority agreed that hospital administrators did not punish error reporters. Most agreed that the hospital culture recognized that mistakes could be made (64 percent) and that error reporting could be done by all employees (86 percent). The majority felt comfortable (65 percent) or somewhat comfortable (32 percent) discussing medical errors, and have learned and would like to continue to learn from the mistakes of others. Attempts to maintain collegiality and their belief about lacking authority prevented nurses from questioning physicians. Nonphysicians attributed many errors to nursing practices. In fact, if an error occurred, 96 percent of nurses and more than 90 percent of physicians, administrators, and pharmacists would have assigned patient safety responsibility to nurses. Only 22 percent of respondents believed that clinicians and administrators shared equal responsibility for patient safety.58

Three studies by Wakefield and colleagues70, 150, 151 asked nurses about organizational and leadership/management factors that could thwart error reporting. Staff nurses believed that having an organizational culture that did not support error reporting70 and management practices and beliefs (e.g., supervisors not viewing fear of an administrative response as a barrier to error reporting)150 thwarted error reporting. Wakefield and colleagues151 found in another survey that hospital culture types varied; smaller institutions tended to have group-oriented cultures while larger institutions tended to be more hierarchal (which was negatively associated with error reporting). They also found that the extent of CQI implementation increased with bed size of the hospital, and perceived rate of medication administration error reporting decreased. Considered together, the presence of a group-oriented culture and higher levels of CQI implementation were positively but not significantly associated with reporting errors.

One study surveyed physicians and nurses about barriers that could be modified to enable error reporting. The modifiable barriers they identified were the structure and processes for reporting errors and the lack of education about errors. The least modifiable barriers they reported were fear of lawsuits, fear of being blamed, and motivational issues.149

Error-Reporting Strategies

Thirteen studies investigated the effects of new and revised error-reporting systems on error reporting. Investigators examined a clinical pharmacist on units;119 education, a revised reporting system, and a call center;120 a voluntary reporting system;121, 122 a voluntary system for near misses;154 a voluntary, paper-based reporting system;133, 136, 137 a confidential, electronic-based reporting system;135 education enhanced by error report summaries;115 education of nurse case managers;126 a Web-based anonymous reporting system;112 and confidential peer interviews.36 Only one study assessed the impact of mandatory error reporting.144

Three of the studies introduced an “expert” to assist providers in detecting errors. In one, a clinical pharmacist was introduced on units to improve medication safety and increase medication error reporting as well as error reporting generally. Error reports remained relatively constant, yet error reports from physicians decreased. The severity of errors decreased over time, and the reporting of near misses increased from 9 percent to 51 percent.119 Another study introduced an “expert peer” to prompt assessment of patients, using confidential peer interviews during morning rounds or via e-mail. Verbal reports of errors were confirmed with the patient medical records, but only one incident report was submitted by a house officer for a patient fall. Nurses submitted the majority of incident reports for errors involving patient slips and falls, medication errors, and other events.36 In the third study, a hospital introduced nurse case managers to review patient medications, detect adverse drug events (ADEs), and report detected ADEs. Once the nurse case managers began reviewing medications and submitting ADE reports, the majority of which were for serious ADEs and possible ADEs, the reports of ADEs nearly doubled.126

Researchers in one study provided error reporting education to staff, revised their current reporting system, and introduced a call center. As a result, reporting increased throughout the hospital—more physicians in the emergency department and more nurses in medical units submitted error reports—and there were more anonymous reports compared to the hospital used as a control. More reports were submitted using the one-page form than through the call center. Nurses continued to submit the majority of reports.120

One study aimed to improve error reporting through educational initiatives in 10 critical access hospitals. The investigators conducted several education workshops about the nature of errors, the design of safety systems, and best practices in medication safety. Then they collected error reports from all the hospitals and provided quarterly reports from the error reports to each of the hospitals, including the results and averages from the group of hospitals. The investigators found that most of the errors were not harmful and were associated with medication administration, mostly for dose omissions. The reports helped hospitals identify and address systems factors that were conducive to errors.116

Five studies tested the effects of new, voluntary error-reporting systems. One study assessed the impact of introducing an error-reporting system in community, primary care research networks. Investigators found that the number of reports increased, but the confidential reports were more complete than the anonymous ones.121 Another study also found that error reports increased after the introduction of a voluntary reporting system, that nurses submitted the majority of the errors reports, followed by pharmacists, and physicians submitted an error report only if the error was detected and prevented by the nurse.122 A teaching hospital in New York implemented a new confidential, electronic-based error-reporting system along with an educational program. Investigators found that error reporting increased, but reporting remained low among physicians.135 Another study assessed the effects of introducing a new Web-based anonymous reporting system. Investigators found that error reports, including those for intercepted errors, increased, and errors attributed to physicians increased while those attributed to nurses and pharmacists decreased.112 The last of these five studies assessed the impact of using a voluntary reporting that called near misses, “close calls” and frequent feedback reports. The investigators found that after six months, the number of error reports increased by 1,468 percent.154

The association between voluntary error reporting and the number of error reports submitted was tested in two prospective, interrelated studies, using paper-based SAFE (Safety, Actions, Focus, Everyone) cards. One tested these cards in the medical ICU,137 the other in the surgical ICU.136 The SAFE report card was used over a period of 6 months to document types of events, including errors in tests, treatments, and procedures; medication; equipment; blood products; intravenous complications; behavioral/psychiatric; laboratory; surgery; and falls. This new reporting system resulted in more reported events (232 events) than what was captured by the existing hospitalwide database used to register errors and high-risk events (29 events before and 26 events during the intervention). The investigators believed that the system fostered reporting by unit team members and could reduce events proactively through improved practice.136 The second study used similar methodology and added an additional step: the cards were withdrawn then reintroduced. The cards were reintroduced once the investigators assessed the significant drop in error reporting. The initial use of the cards increased nurse and physician reporting. After the cards were withdrawn, there was a decrease in reports by both nurses and physicians; instead, there were an increased number of reports submitted to the hospital electronic reporting system by nurses. The investigators found that a higher proportion of events reported by physicians were for events that resulted in patient harm, whereas the higher proportion for nurses was for events that did not result in patient harm.136 In both studies, nurses submitted the majority of reports and physician reporting increased.

Disclosure Preferences

Five studies investigated factors associated with disclosure preferences of nurses. Two studies investigated disclosure preferences of patients and clinicians. In one of these studies, which used surveys with error scenarios, patients reported wanting full disclose of errors, yet physicians and nurses wanted to disclose only what happened.81 In the other study, which used focus groups, patients and clinicians agreed that errors should be disclosed when the patient was harmed. The degree of harm caused by errors and whether patients and others were aware of errors were related to disclosure preferences. Institutional culture (perceived tolerance for error and supportive infrastructure) was important to the disclosure decision. Relevant patient factors were health care sophistication, desire for information, and rapport with provider. Provider factors included fears of malpractice, reputation, job threat, and change in rapport with the patient, as well as perceived professional responsibility, medical training, lack of confidence in disclosure skills, and personal discomfort.91

Three studies used surveys to investigate disclosure preferences of EMTs, physicians, and nurses. In one study that specifically asked only nurses, nurses reported that they were less likely than physicians to want to disclose errors. 81 Another survey found that 74 percent of physicians, 23 percent of nurses, and 19 percent of EMTs had disclosed errors.95 Physicians were also more likely to disclose (71 percent) an error than were nurses (59 percent), but nurses (68 percent) were more likely to report an error than were physicians (54 percent).92

Another survey found that 29 percent of physicians and 64 percent of nurses reported feeling comfortable discussing mistakes. Also, 42 percent of physicians and 44 percent of nurses reported feeling uncomfortable discussing errors with patients.143

Evidence-Based Practice Implications

Given the history of error reporting and the role nurses have in patient care, it is important to emphasize that nurses are pivotal in improving patient safety via error reporting. Patient safety will improve when systems effectively assure and improve safety, predicated on a culture in which the reporting of errors or near misses is considered valuable, and positive actions lead to study and change for improvement, not blame.155 To avert underreporting of errors and to effectively learn from errors, administrators in health care agencies need to develop policies that support the routine reporting of errors, so that increased numbers of reports of actual errors and near misses are rewarded on an individual or unit basis. By easing the transition of an institution to a culture of safety, eliminating blame and the pressure of a punitive environment, error reporting will most likely increase. Additionally, it is evident that caregivers and patients profit from detailed accounts and increased reports, specifically in hospitals that act on unsafe practices identified through analysis of error reports. Systems improvements need to be communicated with all stakeholders so that they benefit from seeing the feedback loop in action.

Ethical principles—including beneficence, fiduciary responsibility, respect for autonomy, justice, and honesty—guide clinical practice and mandate reporting and disclosure.156 These principles guide safety efforts and must be espoused by administrators and providers. Improved safety practices begin with policy and procedure development and continue with the allocation of resources for developing reporting systems and databases as well as educating caregivers.

New systems of reporting errors are generally developed in-house or purchased by health care agencies. Electronic systems that are Web-based—that include easy reporting and standard definitions of errors, near misses, and potential root causes as well as personnel responsible for analyzing and sharing safety hazards—provide opportunities for data management and pattern identification of unsafe practices. They also save time for providers as reports are entered into databases and help to shorten the time from incident to report. Developing new systems of reporting requires administrators to budget accordingly so that additional personnel and electronic reporting systems as well as complementary software are financed. Periodic training of personnel and upgrading reporting databases are necessary, as are systems improvements that depend on error-report analysis.

Patients and families desire disclosure of health care errors by health care providers. Providers have an ethical responsibility to disclose. Generally, organizations use verbal reports, followed by written reports offered by patient safety officers, in consultation with agency attorneys, in accord with institutional reporting and disclosure policies. Refusing to disclose suggests fear and a need for provider control rather than patients’ and families’ need for honesty about their care. Disclosure policies must be created with honesty and respect for patient autonomy in mind; apologies must be required.

The emotional responses and perceptions of caregivers about errors are important barriers to reporting. Providers consider themselves at risk when they report errors because many providers carry the residue from previous experiences with mistakes. Anger from coworkers, shame, lack of confidence, and the like combine with guilt about the suffering of patients and fear of potential litigation to hinder reporting and disclosure. Nurses respond similarly to errors as physicians. They feel vulnerable to disciplinary action and legal repercussions; thus errors go underreported. Providers must experience changes in institutional culture, where systems improvements are targeted rather than individual blame.

Teamwork training improves error reporting and reduces clinical errors. Teamwork principles include increased communication among health care providers. One element of a teamwork training program, cross-monitoring, might result in decreased errors as providers observe each other, identify unsafe behaviors, and act to correct each others’ mistakes. Status barriers must be penetrated. Cross-monitoring involves interdisciplinary/caregiver observations, identifying unsafe behaviors, and acting to correct unsafe behaviors. The challenge is how this team training element might be successfully initiated and consistently reinforced in acute care hospitals, critical access hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and other agencies. Along these lines, nurse educators are challenged to include teamwork strategies and exercises aimed at increasing safety practices in health care agencies in undergraduate and graduate nursing courses, taking into account content on existing status issues among health care providers.

Research Implications

The majority of the research on error reporting has occurred within the past 10 years. While the studies included in this analysis provide important insight into what is being reported, they were primarily descriptive and none were nonrandomized or randomized controlled trials. Thus, additional well-designed studies are called for. Teamwork training holds promise as an intervention that might affect frequency and severity of reported errors. Emphasizing cross-monitoring and increased communication as team training strategies might also affect outcomes. Teamwork training could include scenarios that challenge clinicians to determine how and what to report. Multisite team training programs should be investigated. The benefit of team training is in the development of expertise in reporting and disclosure among front-line providers. However, additional research is needed on the effect of team training on error frequency and reporting and disclosure skills, especially among nurses. Examples of research questions might be, Are there differences in patient and family member satisfaction when disclosure of errors is provided by team-trained versus usual-approach health care providers? Does team training affect error and near-miss reporting rates?

Additional studies could be conducted in which disclosure of errors to patients and families is linked to differences in outcomes, for example, claims reports and monetary awards. More research is needed on the impact of Web-based reporting systems on time used for reporting via data entry, time from incident to report, time to systems improvement, as well as a classification of systems improvement strategies and the effect of strategies on error outcomes. Examples of research questions might be, Are there differences in severity scores following errors when Web-based versus incident-report methods of reporting are used by health care providers? Are there differences in frequency of error reports when Web-based versus incident reporting systems are used? Comparisons also might be made between physician and administrator methods of disclosure to patients and families in which simplicity or complexity of disclosure events are examined. Examples of research questions might be, Are there differences in patient and family satisfaction when physician/administrator disclosers are trained using standard, simple script versus unscripted (usual) disclosure communication approaches? Are there differences in the number of liability claims and monetary awards when mandatory versus voluntary disclosure policies are used?

Notable in the reviewed literature was the dearth of studies on reporting and disclosure regarding the variety of adverse events, for example, blood transfusion errors, device malfunctions, health care acquired infections, and others. Most addressed were medication errors. Data are needed across all settings; most research on reporting is hospital-based. Community settings, nursing homes, free-standing short-procedure units, and primary care offices also require additional study regarding error reporting and disclosure. Consequently, there are many research opportunities for nurse investigators. Research is needed describing initial patterns of errors across various settings and focusing on other events, including blood transfusions, surgical incidents, device malfunctions, etc. Comparisons might also be made in liability lawsuit statistics between institutions that have disseminated and acted on the no-blame cultural approach versus those that have initially instituted this approach.


Sustained and collaborative efforts to reduce the occurrence and severity of health care errors are required so that safer, higher quality care results. To improve safety, error-reporting strategies should include identifying errors, admitting mistakes, correcting unsafe conditions, and reporting systems improvements to stakeholders. The greater the number of actual errors and near misses reported, the more reliable a health care organization or system could be, from a safety viewpoint, when systems improvements are consistent with error patterns.

Clinicians appreciate seeing the results of the reports they submitted transformed into systems improvements. Understanding and communicating the root causes of errors and near misses can decrease the risk of future errors, and support the concept that health care errors are often systemic and multifactorial. Reporting errors and near misses may increase through voluntary reporting systems, because voluntary systems provide additional evidence that the blame/shame patterns are being eliminated in health care organizations and systems.

Electronic error-reporting systems can possibly make the time required to report shorter, shorten the time for correcting unsafe conditions, and alert providers to emerging unsafe patterns. Some systems can also facilitate quality improvement initiatives through enhanced error-reporting systems. The benefits of Web-based health care reporting systems that clinicians find easy to use and see the effects of their reporting in changes to systems might ultimately reduce the incidence of serious errors, and significantly improve the safety and quality of health care afforded patients.

Search Strategy

Various databases were searched to locate studies and related literature on reporting and disclosing health care errors, including CINAHL®, PubMed®, and Psycharticles. Search terms included “medical errors” and “medical error reports.” Published results in a non-English language, expert opinions, case reports, and letters were excluded. Studies specifically assessing rates, types, and causes of reported medication administration errors were excluded as well. To be included in the analysis, each article had to involve nursing and report findings specific to nurses. Most of the articles identified in the literature search were primarily descriptive.

Evidence Table

Evidence Table

Error Reporting and Disclosure


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