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Defining and classifying medical error: lessons for patient safety reporting systems
  1. M Tamuz1,
  2. E J Thomas2,
  3. K E Franchois3
  1. 1University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Center for Health Services Research, Memphis, TN 38163, USA
  2. 2The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Medical School, Department of Medicine and Division of General Internal Medicine, Houston, Texas 77030, USA
  3. 3The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health, Houston, Texas 77030, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr M Tamuz
 University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Center for Health Services Research, 66 North Pauline, Suite 463, Memphis, TN 38163, USA;


Background: It is important for healthcare providers to report safety related events, but little attention has been paid to how the definition and classification of events affects a hospital’s ability to learn from its experience.

Objectives: To examine how the definition and classification of safety related events influences key organizational routines for gathering information, allocating incentives, and analyzing event reporting data.

Methods: In semi-structured interviews, professional staff and administrators in a tertiary care teaching hospital and its pharmacy were asked to describe the existing programs designed to monitor medication safety, including the reporting systems. With a focus primarily on the pharmacy staff, interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using qualitative research methods.

Results: Eighty six interviews were conducted, including 36 in the hospital pharmacy. Examples are presented which show that: (1) the definition of an event could lead to under-reporting; (2) the classification of a medication error into alternative categories can influence the perceived incentives and disincentives for incident reporting; (3) event classification can enhance or impede organizational routines for data analysis and learning; and (4) routines that promote organizational learning within the pharmacy can reduce the flow of medication error data to the hospital.

Discussion: These findings from one hospital raise important practical and research questions about how reporting systems are influenced by the definition and classification of safety related events. By understanding more clearly how hospitals define and classify their experience, we may improve our capacity to learn and ultimately improve patient safety.

  • pharmacy intervention
  • organizational learning
  • medical error
  • patient safety
  • categorization

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  • See editorial commentary, p 8

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