American consumers worry more about mistakes happening when they are receiving medical care than when they are flying on an airplane, according to a survey released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Indicating a further erosion of patients' trust in providers, 120, or 6%, of the 2,000 adults surveyed said they had suffered personal injury as a result of a medical error.
"That's a lot of people," said Mollyann Brodie, vice president of public opinion and media research at the foundation. Brodie announced the survey results at a conference in Washington on getting healthcare quality information to consumers.
"The results around medical errors are striking and important," said Peter Lee, president and chief executive officer of the Pacific Business Group on Health, an employer coalition. "This is basically a vote of no confidence in our healthcare system."
Nearly half of those surveyed said they were "very concerned" about a harmful error happening to them or to family members when receiving care in any setting, while less than a third feared such errors when flying on a plane.
Reports of medical errors that lead to harm for patients say "a lot" about the quality of hospitals, more so than patient-satisfaction surveys or accreditation status, the survey found.
"This poll tells us where the public is," said Richard Wade, the American Hospital Association's senior vice president for communications. "It reminds our field about the public's desires, and they are powerful in moving us forward in putting information out there for the public."
While most consumers favored a limited role for the government in regulating quality, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed believe the government should require providers to report all serious medical errors and make sure the information is made available publicly.
"When data is not public, you can't make quality decisions, and that's basically what the survey shows," said Charles Inlander, president of the Allentown, Pa.-based People's Medical Society, a consumer advocacy group.
However, Inlander cautioned consumers not to focus solely on medical errors when weighing the quality of a healthcare provider. "The absence of medical errors does not necessarily equal the presence of quality," he said.
The survey illustrates the lasting impression last year's Institute of Medicine report on medical errors has left on healthcare consumers, said Drew Altman, the foundation's president. The IOM report found that up to 98,000 Americans die every year in the nation's hospitals as a result of medical errors.
"Media attention to the Institute of Medicine story has propelled the problem of medical errors to the forefront in just a short period of time," Altman said. "It's an amazing example of agenda setting."
The IOM is expected to release another, more comprehensive report on healthcare quality early next year (See story, p. 32).
Separately last week, the United States Pharmacopeia released a summary of the first full year of data collected by its voluntary program for reporting medication errors. The reports from 56 hospitals throughout the country in 1999 found that the majority of medication errors--97%--did not result in patient harm. Of the 187 cases where errors did do harm, five caused permanent injury and one resulted in a patient death.