Medical error and decision making: Learning from the past and present in intensive care

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Background: Human error occurs in every occupation. Medical errors may result in a near miss or an actual injury to a patient that has nothing to do with the underlying medical condition. Intensive care has one of the highest incidences of medical error and patient injury in any specialty medical area; thought to be related to the rapidly changing patient status and complex diagnoses and treatments. Purpose: The aims of this paper are to: (1) outline the definition, classifications and aetiology of medical error; (2) summarise key findings from the literature with a specific focus on errors arising from intensive care areas; and (3) conclude with an outline of approaches for analysing clinical information to determine adverse events and inform practice change in intensive care. Data source: Database searches of articles and textbooks using keywords: medical error, patient safety, decision making and intensive care. Sociology and psychology literature cited therein. Findings: Critically ill patients require numerous medications, multiple infusions and procedures. Although medical errors are often detected by clinicians at the bedside, organisational processes and systems may contribute to the problem. A systems approach is thought to provide greater insight into the contributory factors and potential solutions to avoid preventable adverse events. Conclusion: It is recommended that a variety of clinical information and research techniques are used as a priority to prevent hospital acquired injuries and address patient safety concerns in intensive care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)150-156
Number of pages7
JournalAustralian Critical Care
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Clinical decision making
  • Intensive care
  • Medical error
  • Patient safety

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