Harvard Research Says One-Fifth of Massachusetts Adults Have Experienced Medical Errors

The poll found that 23 percent of respondents were the victim of medical error, and many were never reported.

A new poll from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) presents a startling figure: Twenty-three percent of adults surveyed felt that they or someone close to them had been the victim of a medical error in the last five years.

The study was commissioned by the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction, an organization formed in memory of the late Betsy Lehman, a health reporter who died in 1995 due to a chemotherapy drug overdose. “We were interested in a follow-up on this issue, which we had thought was very important then,” explains Dr. Robert Blendon, the HSPH dean behind the research. “And no one had really done a study of public perceptions of this issue since there had been so much activity and interest years ago.”

The poll results are jarring. Of the 23 percent of respondents who felt they had experienced a medical error—anything from a misdiagnosis to being administered the wrong medication—13 percent felt that the mishap caused serious health problems. Furthermore, 37 percent of those who experienced errors never reported the mistake, with 36 percent of those people saying they did not report it because they didn’t know how. Blendon says that knowledge gap is at the heart of the study’s importance.

“These are issues that average people who have experienced an error would want to know, and I don’t think we know,” Blendon says. “I think it’s more than, here’s a telephone number. They need to know what would happen if I called the number.” Educating patients, he adds, is a huge part of the Lehman Center’s mission, and resources are available on its website.

Since the findings came as a result of self-reporting, Blendon acknowledges that some of the individuals in the 23 percent may have a skewed perception of what constitutes a medical error. But, he says, that may not be a bad thing. “When people sense they’ve been harmed, we think it’s very important to give them a voice to be able to say that,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they’re medical experts; it just means they think somebody made the wrong diagnosis so they got the wrong drug or the wrong test or something, and what’s significant is half of them thought it had serious consequences. These are in people’s minds when they remember it. They’re not trivial events.”

Even though self-reported polls do have a margin for error, Blendon says surveys like these are still very necessary. “When you get a lot of attention to a figure like that [the 23 percent error rate], it’ll create impetus for more action, more oversight, more reporting,” Blendon explains. “The hope always is when you give a voice to average people about problems and it gets a lot of attention, it creates an environment for action. Our hope is that you allow people to speak through this poll, and that would get a response so that four or five years from now, that number would be a lot lower.”