What are medical errors?

In reviewing the literature on medical errors, medication errors, and adverse events in health care, it is helpful to first define common terms. Medical errors are defined by the Encyclopedia of Surgery (2011) as adverse events that could be prevented given the current state of medical knowledge. In addition, the Quality Interagency Coordination Task Force (QuIC) suggests that medical errors are "the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim. Errors can include problems in practice, products, procedures, and systems" (Encyclopedia of Surgery, para 3).

Medication errors are the most common type of medical error and are a significant cause of preventable adverse events. Medication errors are defined by the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention (NCC MERP) as:

Any preventable event that may cause or lead to inappropriate medication use or patient harm while the medication is in the control of the health care professional, patient, or consumer. Such events may be related to professional practice, health care products, procedures, and systems, including prescribing; order communication; product labeling, packaging, and nomenclature; compounding; dispensing; distribution; administration; education; monitoring; and use”.

Finally, adverse events are defined as adverse changes in health which occur as a result of treatment.  When medications are involved, these are known as adverse drug events (ADEs).


The topic of medical errors received national attention when the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report that an estimated 44,000 to 98,000 Americans died each year due to medical errors. The report titled "To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System," helped organizations to look at systems problems that could be contributing to these errors. For example, sometimes the labels on medications were very similar. There has been steady improvement, especially in hospitals that care for heart attacks, heart failure and pneumonia (The Joint Commission, 2010), however, there is still much improvement needed. This is why healthcare consumers are encouraged to ask questions and become partners with their healthcare team.

The IOM Report can be viewed on the IOM website:

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.