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Medical error

37% of Albertans experienced medical error: Survey

CALGARY – A new survey by the Health Quality Council of Alberta has found that 37 percent of Albertans have experienced a preventable medical error, at some point in their lives, while receiving a service within Alberta’s health system. The findings were part of the Health Quality Council’s Alberta Patient Safety Survey, which was released in late September.

The Council’s independent survey looked at Albertans’ perceptions of and actual experiences with medical errors, including specific details about the circumstances surrounding errors. Medical errors are defined as mistakes made during medical care that result in serious harm, such as death, disability or additional prolonged treatment.

In releasing the survey findings, Health Quality Council Chief Executive Officer Dr. John Cowell said, “While the survey has found that the majority of Albertans perceive the health system to be safe, the results also suggest that Albertans have some concerns when it comes to patient safety.”

Added Cowell, “These findings corroborate what we learned from our 2003 and 2004 Satisfaction with Health Care Services surveys. They also provide some general orientation to medical errors and prevention strategies that could be explored to increase patient confidence and to potentially prevent medical errors.”

Key areas identified in the survey include:

• 95% of those surveyed felt physicians should be required to tell the patient or the patient’s family if a preventable medical error resulting in serious harm is made in the patient’s care.

• 26% of surveyed Albertans responded “very often” or “often” when asked how often health professionals made preventable medical errors that result in serious harm to the patient; 50%said “not very often” and 13% said “not often at all.”

• 66% felt overwork, stress or fatigue of health professionals was a very important cause of preventable medical errors that results in serious harm to the patient.

• 74% of those surveyed felt requiring hospitals to report all serious medical errors to a provincial agency would be very effective in reducing medical errors.

• Albertans surveyed who had experienced a medical error feel they are not listened to or heard and that their opinions are not valued, which they feel may contribute to medical errors.

• Those Albertans surveyed who had experienced a medical error feel that improving communication and striving for a more team-oriented approach to healthcare and improving communication between healthcare practitioners and patients were possible solutions for preventing medical errors.

The survey interviewed 1,500 Albertans aged 18 years and older. Four hundred respondents lived in the Calgary Health Region and 400 were from the Capital Health Region. One hundred survey respondents were selected from each of the other seven health regions throughout Alberta. The sex and age composition of the sample of respondents was similar to the 2001Alberta census. Survey questions were based on a survey done in the United States by the Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health, and were modified to reflect Alberta’s healthcare system.

The survey was conducted by the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta, an independent organization, between April and May 2004. The overall findings are accurate to approximately ±5%, 19 times out of 20 for the Calgary and Capital health regions, ±10% for each of the smaller regions, ±4% for the combined group of seven smaller health regions, and ±3 for the entire province. The qualitative analysis was completed in August 2005.

Stated Cowell, “Based on this and previous survey findings, the Council is currently involved in a number of initiatives focused on improving safety in the healthcare system. Through the Health Quality Network, a collaborative that represents health regions, health professions, associations, boards and government, we are developing a provincial framework called Disclosure of Harm to Patients and Families, which provides guidelines for sharing information with patients and families when a patient experiences harm.

“The same group is also working on a Concerns Resolution Framework to provide an effective and consistent process for handling complaints/concerns from patients, families and staff across and between the health regions and regulated health professions.”

Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, the Council’s Chair concluded, “The main role of the Health Quality Council is to provide Albertans with an independent assessment of the quality, safety and performance of the province’s publicly funded health system. I am confident these survey results will help support continued improvement in Alberta’s health system.”

The Health Quality Council of Alberta is an arm’s-length organization empowered and funded by the Government of Alberta through the Minister of Health and Wellness to report directly to Albertans on the quality, safety and performance of health services. The Council is charged with identifying best practices, and reviewing and monitoring health care quality, including acceptability, accessibility, appropriateness, effectiveness, efficiency and safety. It also collaborates with stakeholders to continuously improve the quality and safety of the health system.

Copies of the technical reports and survey highlights are available on the HQCA’s Web site at