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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(6):1168

In two U.S. studies about medical errors in 2000 and 2001, family physicians offered their ideas on how to prevent, avoid, or remedy the five most often reported medical errors. Almost all reports (94 percent) included at least one idea on how to overcome the reported error. These ideas ranged from “do not make errors” (34 percent of all solutions offered to these five error types) to more thoughtfully proposed solutions relating to improved communication mechanisms (30 percent) and ways to provide care differently (26 percent). More education (7 percent) and more resources such as time (2 percent) were other prevention ideas.

Of 416 error reports made by U.S. family physicians in two medical error studies in 2000 and 2001, 151 (36 percent) were about the most commonly reported errors involving the processes of ordering medications, implementing laboratory investigations, filing forms and maintaining patient records, implementing medication orders, and responding to abnormal laboratory test results.

Although identifying medical errors is an important first step in making primary care safer for patients, the major challenge is in finding ways to avoid them. When asked for their ideas on how to overcome the most common medical errors they reported, family physicians offered 228 distinct solutions, categorized in the accompanying table.

In 2000 and 2001, before patient safety was widely discussed in primary care settings, one third of family physicians' solutions for overcoming medical error were not very helpful—doing the same thing, but better. The practicing environment may make it difficult for physicians to think in terms of systems or to imagine alternatives to their immediate realities. Surprisingly, only a small minority of the other, more practical solutions for overcoming medical errors in primary care required additional resources, and these resources were almost always time-related rather than monetary. Specific changes such as stopping the use of carbon copy prescription forms, doing urgent laboratory tests in the office, and using flagging systems to draw attention to information needing action were all practical suggestions for alleviating these common errors. Various double-checking systems also were favored.

In searching for solutions to medical errors, asking those involved in providing care for their ideas may be a rewarding strategy.

Idea on prevention, avoidance, or remedyOrdering medications (54 reports, 87 ideas*)Implementing laboratory orders (27 reports, 41 ideas*)Filing system (25 reports, 40 ideas*)Implementing medication orders (24 reports, 34 ideas*)Responding to abnormal laboratory results (21 reports, 26 ideas*)Total (151 reports, 228 ideas*)
No idea reported †1.9%14.8%NA4.2%14.3%6%
Do not make mistakes
Be more diligent41.4%12.2%42.5%20.6%26.9%31.6%
Follow protocols1.1%4.9%2.5%2.9%3.8%2.6%
Provide care differently
Change established habits12.6%9.8%2.5%5.9%19.2%10.1%
Use double-checking system10.3%31.7%12.5%14.7%11.5%15.4%
Better communication
With patients5.7%NANA11.8%3.8%4.4%
Between providers17.2%26.8%37.5%32.4%26.9%25.9%
More/better education6.9%12.2%2.5%8.8%3.8%7%
More resources3.4%2.4%NANA3.8%2.2%

The information and opinions contained in research from the Graham Center do not necessarily reflect the views or the policy of the AAFP.

This series is coordinated by Kenny Lin, MD, MPH, deputy editor.

A collection of Graham Center Policy One-Pagers published in AFP is available at One-Pagers are also available at

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