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Medical errors and the Institute of Medicine (IOM)

Summary - Part I


Institute of Medicine - IOM-1 First Do No Harm
IOM-1 Key Findings
IOM-1 Definitions of Key Terms
IOM-1 Types of Medical Errors

Responses to the IOM-1 Report
Healthcare Organizations
Business Health Groups

Institute of Medicine - IOM-2 Crossing the Quality Chasm
IOM-2 Key Findings


The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released two reports that changed the way the public and healthcare systems think about patient safety and quality of care. These reports were part of a series of reports known as the "Quality of Health Care in American" project, to assess the US healthcare system. The first report, (IOM-1), To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, was released in November of 1999 and focused attention on the specific issue of medical errors in the hospital setting. According to the IOM-1 report, to "err is human, but errors can be prevented and safety is a critical first step in improving the quality of care." The report summarizes major findings on patient safety, provides key definitions and a framework to discuss medical errors, and makes recommendations for changes by government and healthcare providers and associations. The executive summary (.pdf) (303 KB) of this report may be downloaded or the entire report may be viewed online. (See Key Documents: Kohn 1999).

The IOM panel released a second report, Crossing the Quality Chasm – A New Health System for the 21st Century in March 2001 (IOM-2). This second report recommends a sweeping redesign of the health care system to improve quality of care and provides a suggested framework and key steps to accomplish this goal. This executive summary may also be downloaded or the full document may be viewed at the National Academy press site. (See Key Documents: Crossing the Quality Chasm).

Additional IOM reports on patient safety have been published by the National Academy Press since these two initial groundbreaking reports, for example "Preventing Medication Errors, 2007." This series of reports from the IOM are available at the NAS Web site: reports&restric=NAP.

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The first report,
Institute of Medicine IOM-1 First Do No Harm

IOM-1 key findings

An estimated 44,000 to 98,000 people die each year in hospitals as a result of medical errors; medication errors alone account for an estimated 7,000 deaths annually. Even the lower estimate (44,000) suggests that medical errors are the eighth leading cause of death, higher than motor vehicle accidents (43,458) or breast cancer (42,297). These numbers were derived predominantly from two studies, one conducted in New York and the other in Colorado and Utah (see References: Brennan 1991, Thomas 1999). However, controversy exists as to the exact magnitude of adverse outcomes associated with medical errors. This is illustrated by two editorials that appeared in the July 5, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. In one, McDonald and others questioned the validity of the IOM-1 estimates and suggested that the numbers were exaggerated (see Resources: McDonald 2000). In the other, a recognized leader in the field indicated that the numbers may actually underestimate the true burden caused by medical errors (See Resources:Leape 2000).

Total annual costs of preventable adverse events (ie, medical errors resulting in injury) are estimated to be between $17 billion and $29 billion per year. Over one-half of these expenditures are for direct health care costs, such as longer stay or treatment. The increased costs of preventable adverse drug events affecting hospitalized patients are about $2 billion per year.

The IOM-1 report also pointed out that not all costs can be directly measured. Examples of such costs include loss of trust in the system, physical and psychological discomfort for patients, lost work productivity among patients who require extra care, loss of morale and frustration among healthcare workers at not being able to provide the best care possible, and lower levels of health of the population served.

A recurring theme in the report is that the majority of medical errors do not result from individual recklessness, but rather from basic flaws in the way health systems are organized. Some of these are only too well demonstrated by sentinel events reported to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). Examples include:

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IOM-1 definitions of key terms

The IOM-1 report provides definitions of key terms so that a standard framework can be used for discussing issues related to medical errors and patient safety. These terms are defined as follows:

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IOM-1 types of medical errors

IOM-1 General categories for medical errors

The IOM-1 report categorized medical errors in the following way:

Diagnostic errors




IOM-1 Medication errors: A large percentage of medical errors are associated with medications. The National Coordinating Council for Medication Error and Prevention (NCCMERP) has approved the following working definitions specifically for medication errors:

Medication errors can occur at any stage of medication administration. These include:

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IOM-1 recommendations

The IOM committee recommended a four-part plan designed to create both financial and regulatory incentives to move closer to a safer healthcare system. The recommendations provide a systematic way to design safety into the process of care. The report also calls for a program assessment after five years to determine progress in achieving a safer healthcare system. There are two additional recommendations that specifically address medication system errors, since they represent a major proportion of the total errors addressed.

The key recommendations of the IOM-1 was a four-part plan and is described below:

1. Create a "Center for Patient Safety within the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality:" Having a dedicated federal agency that focuses on safety has dramatically improved safety in other industries. Using that model, the committee recommended that Congress create a center for patient safety within the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). This center would:

2. Establish mandatory and voluntary reporting systems: The IOM-1 committee called for both mandatory and voluntary reporting systems:

3. Raise standards and expectations for improvement in safety through the actions of oversight organizations, group purchasers, and professional groups: Performance standards and expectation for healthcare organizations should focus greater attention on patient safety through the following recommendations:

4. Create safety systems inside healthcare organizations through the implementation of safe practices at the delivery level: Healthcare organizations must create an environment (ie, a "culture of safety") in which safety becomes a top priority. As part of this process, healthcare organizations should implement proven medication safety practices. Patient safety programs should:

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Responses to the IOM-1 report

Responses IOM-1 government

Responses to IOM-1 White House and QuIC

Shortly after release of the IOM-1 report, President Clinton accepted the major recommendations in principle. A number of subsequent events demonstrated how importantly the White House perceived this issue:

Agency funded to focus on safety: Using presidential authority to make changes unilaterally, Clinton signed a bill, S. 580, the "Healthcare Research and Quality Act of 1999," which authorized appropriations for the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, and renamed it the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The bill expanded the mission of the agency to include new goals for identifying the causes of preventable healthcare errors and ways of curtailing them.

QuIC task force: By early 2000, the Clinton administration unveiled its full proposal for reducing medical errors. President Clinton charged the Quality Interagency Coordination (QuIC) task force with considering and responding fully to the IOM-1 report. The QuIC taskforce was convened in response to the final report of the President's Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Healthcare Industry, released in 1998. That report identified medical errors as one of four major challenges that needed to be addressed to improve healthcare quality. The goal of the QuIC task force is to coordinate quality improvement activity among the following agencies: the Departments of Health and Human Services (which includes the AHRQ, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] formerly known as the Health Care Financing Administration [HCFA]); Labor, Commerce, and Defense; the Coast Guard; the Bureau of Prisons; and the Office of Personnel Management. The AHRQ director functions as the operational Chair of the QuIC task force.

QuIC report: The task force's report "Doing What Counts for Patient Safety: Federal Actions to Reduce Medical Errors and Their Impact" was released in February 2000. The 95-page report provided details on federal approaches to implementing the IOM-1 recommendations, and may be downloaded or viewed online. (See Key documents QuIC)

QuIC's goal: The QuIC report endorsed the IOM-1's goal of reducing the number of medical errors nationwide by 50% over 5 years. The report responds to each of the IOM-1 recommendations and outlines a comprehensive and strategic plan, which includes federal initiatives that are already underway. The report also outlines a series of follow-up activities. For example, in September 2000, AHRQ and QuIC hosted a review from all stakeholders to identify issues that need to be addressed in setting a research agenda.

Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety (CQuIPS): The CQuIPS was established within the AHRQ to coordinates and complement other public and private sector initiatives to improve patient safety. The purpose of the Center is to conduct aggressive research into medical errors, convert findings into improved practices, and educate patients about safety.

The full QuIC report may be downloaded (See Key documents QuIC)

Federal Patient Safety Task Force: A task force was established in April 2001 within the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate a joint effort among several department agencies to improve existing systems to collect data on patient safety. The task force was charged to working closely with the states and private sector to develop data to help avert risks to patients. The agencies include the:

The goal of this Task Force is to identify the data that healthcare providers, states, and others need to collect to improve patient safety. To start this process, the task force is releasing a contract request to develop a detailed plan on how to integrate the existing reporting systems in a way that minimizes burden, provides those who must submit reports an opportunity to learn, and improves the safety of health care services. AHRQ provides a fact sheet that describes the members and purpose of the task force, and a slide presentation that describes how this might be accomplished. Both resources may be downloaded  and or viewed at the AHRQ web site. (See Key Documents AHRQ -New database)

Responses to IOM-1 Congress

106th Congress: Several bills regarding medical error reporting were introduced in the 106th Congress, and included efforts to develop a voluntary, non-punitive error reduction system under the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The most comprehensive bill invoked the Conditions of Participation to amend title XVIII of the Social Security Act. It sought to establish and implement a comprehensive system under the Medicare Program to reduce the incidence of medical errors, among other provisions. No action was taken on these and similar bills and amendments introduced in late 2000.

107th Congress: By May 2001, three new Senate bills were introduced in the 107th Congress that address medical errors and the information systems required to support medical safety programs:

Medical error reporting: Health Care Assurance Act of 2001 (S 24) was introduced by Arlen Specter (R-PA) in January. It amends the Social Security Act to establish a State-based medical error reporting system. Under Title VIII, Safety and Cost-Effective Medical Treatment, it provides for Medical Error reduction and inserts error definitions and state-based reporting programs. It also requires demonstration projects to reduce medical errors, improve patient safety, and evaluate current reporting systems.

Information technology: The Health Information Technology and Quality Improvement Act of 2001(S 705) was introduced April 5th by Charles Schummer (D-NY) to establish a health information technology grant program for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and home health agencies. It requires Health and Human Services to establish and implement a methodology under the Medicare program for providing hospitals with reimbursement for costs incurred by these hospitals with respect to implementing information technology systems.

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Responses IOM-1 healthcare organizations

Healthcare and professional organizations responded vigorously to the IOM-1 report and the President's call for action. Many professional organizations had been behind the initiative that led to convening the IOM panel, and these same groups have joined together with industries in a concerted effort to address to improve quality and safety in healthcare organizations. A few groups are briefly described below; see Links for an expanded list of safety organizations and an expanded list of organization's resources:

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Responses IOM-1 business health groups

Business groups that represent purchasers of healthcare or medical supply companies have proposed initiatives to "jump start" the process and force attention to the issues in a practical manner. Examples include:

Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC) is a business coalition that is composed of chief executives from hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and medical surgical supply companies. HLC formed a task force in June of 2000 to reduce medical errors. Members of the task force include the chief executives of Abbott Laboratories, Johnson & Johnson, Cleveland Clinic, Voluntary Hospitals of America, (VHA), First Health Group, Mayo Foundation, Tenet Health Systems, and Humana. Premier's chief executive officer is the chair. The task force's objective is to reduce the incidence of medical errors and enhance patient safety by focusing on production and distribution of healthcare products and services, as well as ensuring appropriate levels of patient care at the provider level.

Leapfrog Group (leapfroggroup)is a Washington, DC-based organization sponsored by the Business Roundtable. Founding members include Buyers Healthcare Action Group, General Electric, General Motors, GTE (now Verizon), and the Pacific Business Group on Health. CMS and the US Office of Personnel Management also participate. The Leapfrog Group is also committed to partnering with healthcare providers. The group is planning on making a giant leap in value-based purchasing; their goal is to mobilize employer purchasing power to trigger a breakthrough in the safety and the overall value of healthcare to American consumers. Preferential use and other market reinforcements will be their tools to achieve this goal. For example, the Leapfrog Group is supporting the following "safety leaps" as key elements of healthcare plans:

Failure to meet these expectations may affect the ability of healthcare provider to contract with major employers for their health benefit packages.

Premier healthcare alliance Premier has responded in numerous ways in addition to being an active member of the Health Leadership Council. It has developed a specific focus on medication management initiatives, and has received an overwhelming response from owner hospitals to continue working in medication error reduction strategies.

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The second report,
Institute of Medicine IOM-2 Crossing the Quality Chasm

IOM-2 key findings - See also IOM-2 Users manual

Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century is a follow-up report from the IOM panel of the Quality Health Care project.  IOM-2 recommends a sweeping redesign of the American healthcare system. It provides overarching principles for specific direction for policymakers, healthcare leaders, clinicians, regulators and purchasers. It offers:

  1. Care based on continuous healing relationships: Patients should receive care whenever they need it, and in many forms, not just face-to-face visits. This rule implies that the healthcare system should be responsive at all times (24 hours a day, every day), and that access to care should be provided over the Internet, by telephone, and by other means in addition to face-to-face visits.
  2. Customization based on patient needs and values: The system of care should be designed to meet the most common types of needs, but have the capability to respond to individual patient choices and preferences.
  3. The patient as the source of control: Patients should be given the necessary information and the opportunity to exercise the degree of control they choose over health care decisions that affect them. The health system should be able to accommodate differences in patient preferences and encourage shared decision-making.
  4. Shared knowledge and the free flow of information: Patients should have unfettered access to their own medical information and to clinical knowledge. Clinicians and patients should communicate effectively and share information.
  5. Evidence-based decision-making: Patients should receive care based on the best available scientific knowledge. Care should not vary illogically from clinician to clinician or from place to place.
  6. Safety as a system property: Patients should be safe from injury caused by the care system. Reducing risk and ensuring safety require greater attention to systems that help prevent and mitigate errors.
  7. The need for transparency: The health care system should make information available to patients and their families that allow them to make informed decisions when selecting a health plan, hospital, or clinical practice, or when choosing among alternative treatments. This should include information describing the system's performance on safety, evidence-based practice, and patient satisfaction.
  8. Anticipation of needs: The health system should anticipate patient needs, rather than simply reacting to events.
  9. Continuous decrease in waste: The health system should not waste resources or patient time.
  10. Cooperation among clinicians: Clinicians and institutions should actively collaborate and communicate to ensure an appropriate exchange of information and coordination of care.

Adapted from icanPREVENT. Used with permission of ican, Inc.

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