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Medical Error and Patient Safety: Understanding Cultures in Conflict

21 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2003  

Joanna K. Weinberg

University of California, San Francisco


Evidence documenting the high rate of medical errors to patients has taken a prominent place on the health care radar screen. The injuries and deaths associated with medical errors represent a major public health problem with significant economic costs and erosion of trust in the health care system. Between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths due to preventable medical errors are estimated to occur each year, making medical errors the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. However, the recent prominence of the issue of safety or error does not reflect a new phenomenon or sudden rift in the quality of health care (although it is a system fraying at the edges). Rather, the prominence of the issue reflects a radical change in the culture of health care, and in how relationships within the health care system are structured and perceived. In this paper, I discuss the multiple factors responsible for the change in the culture of health care. First, the culture has shifted from a clinician cantered system, in which decision making is one-and patient, and, often, between administrator or payer. Second, the nature of quality in health care has changed due to the geometric increase in the availability of technological and pharmaceutical enhancements to patient care. Third, the health care culture continues to rely on outdated models of conflict resolution. Finally, the regulatory structure of health system oversight was set in place when fee-for-service care governed physician-patient relationships and where few external technologies were available. In the current health care culture, that structure seems inadequate and diffuse, with multiple and overlapping federal and state regulatory structures that make implementation of patient safety systems difficult.

Suggested Citation

Weinberg, Joanna K., Medical Error and Patient Safety: Understanding Cultures in Conflict. Law & Policy, Vol. 24, pp. 93-113, 2002. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=370511

Joanna K. Weinberg (Contact Author)

University of California, San Francisco ( email )

Third Avenue and Parnassus
San Francisco, CA 94143
United States

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