Can patients make a difference in reducing medical errors?

Medical errors cause substantial harm and even death among hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Although this problem has received national attention, very little research has looked at the role patients can play in preventing, detecting, and recovering from these errors.

A $2 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality will allow iSchool Professor Wanda Pratt, with collaborators and co-investigators Logan Kendall, Eun Kyoung Choe, Dr. Ari Pollack, and Dr. Barry Aaronson, to investigate the information support that hospitalized patients and their caregivers need for them to play an important safety role in their own medical care.

“This grant means a lot to me because my family has experienced three substantial medical errors that could have been prevented by better informing and involving patients and their caregivers. Fortunately, none of these errors were fatal for my family,” says Pratt. “Many others aren't as lucky.”

Pratt cites one recent study estimating 440,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are caused by preventable medical errors—which is equivalent to about 7 jet airplanes crashing a day. 

The research team believes patients and their caregivers offer a distinctive perspective on the delivery of care that is rarely captured except through ad hoc dialogue with nursing staff and clinicians.

During the 5-year study, the team will identify information that would increase patients’ and their caregivers ability to recognize potential safety issues, help them capture and manage their healthcare information and concerns, and determine strategies to support ways for patients and caregivers to actively and effectively communicate any concerns to their health care providers.

The study will be conducted with the cooperation of Seattle Children’s Hospital and Virginia Mason Medical Center. All phases of the research—from observations and interviews through the design and evaluation of prototypes—will include current patients from each of the two local health-care institutions.

As the project progresses, the research team hopes to collaborate with national organizations—such as the National Patient Safety Foundation—to disseminate the results of the research and to further understand how the work could be used in other healthcare institutions.

“We chose those two healthcare institutions as partners because they already emphasize patient safety and provide strong support for patient-centered care,” says Pratt. “By working closely with these partners, we hope our research results will easily translate into new policies and procedures as well as new technologies that would enhance patient safety at these institutions.”

As information is at the center of all aspects of the research, the University of Washington Information School is a natural fit for the project. Access to important healthcare information, capturing patient’s experiences, and communicating the information with health care providers will be the key to identifying potential errors and preventing them, explains Pratt.

“Anything we can do to reduce the incidence of or harm from these medical errors will have a huge impact on everyone's lives.”