EMS Errors and Patient Safety

When I went to nursing school, I found two of the biggest differences between nursing and paramedic education were the nursing emphasis on medication safety and asepsis. While I do not recall being taught about either in paramedic school, since that was almost twenty years ago, my recollection may be poor. We no doubt touched on both subjects, but likely we touched upon them only in passing. I can say that in my two decades of field medicine, both in my own practice and in observation of my peers, medication safety and aspepsis are not often high on the priority list.

In 1999 Institute of Medicine Report issued their landmark report: Too Err is Human. They estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die in hospitals each year as a result of preventable medical errors. That’s more deaths than motor-vehicle wrecks, breast cancer, and AIDS combined. They reported that serious errors occurred most often in emergency departments, operating rooms and intensive care units. The cost of these errors was estimated to be between $17 billion and $29 billion per year in additional care, lost income and household productivity, and disability.

Listen to this key statement: “The majority of medical errors do not result from individual recklessness.” Faulty systems are usually to blame. Now this doesn’t mean that people should be excused from their responsibility or not be held accountable for their errors. What is does mean is that when errors are made, we should always look at how they were made and how they could be prevented. If a person can make an error, other people can likely make the same error, so we need to look at the system and figure out how to make it harder to make that error.

A great example of this, which I wrote about in Medication Errors – Epinephrine – is stocking high dose epinephrine. If medics have to draw up high-dose epi either in a syringe to give IM or to be diluted to give IV, there exits the opportunity for a patient to get a lethal dose. Its not going to happen every time, but there have been a number of fatalities due to just this accident waiting to happen. So, to prevent lethal errors, you change the system – you provide epi-pens instead of high-dose vials. It’s more expensive, but it can spare lives.

The aviation industry has long been a leader in safety initiatives. Their Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS) documents adverse events and near misses. Anytime someone even imagines how an accident could occur, it is analyzed and the system made safer.

Hospitals are required to report adverse events. Serious Reportable Events (SREs) developed by the National Quality Forum, include 28 events that must be reported, including death or serious disability from medication error.

I’ve recited to you the stats on hospital errors, but when it comes to EMS – a far more uncontrolled environment, there is virtually no error reporting. EMS treats 30 million patients a year. 10 million patients receive at least 1 medical intervention defined as a medication, IV, CPR, or advanced airway. We have many inexperienced providers.* There is minimal oversight in EMS. If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If a medic alone in the back gives the wrong medicine, did the patient receive it?

Sit around a table after work drinking beers with your coworkers and listen to the tales. It is the Wild West. Sure there are many medics – the majority, I believe — who do heroic deeds and provide professional care, but there are some other tales out there that would make shocking stories on 60 Minutes.

In the coming weeks I will be writing about Patient and Medication Safety. I will of course disguise all calls so that no person, service, or patient is identified. I will also try to make some suggestions about how to make EMS a safer place.

Stay tuned.

*You can be a medic for twenty years and still be inexperienced in what you are being faced with. I have only delivered two babies. I don’t care to ever see legs dangling out again. I have never done a surgical cricothyroidotomy. I hope I never have to cut someone’s throat because I can’t guarantee you, I will do it perfectly. We have a Melker kit. I am pretty skilled with it when I have practiced it five times in a room in a skills session. But a month later face me with a real patient who needs it now, and I am first day rookie.


  • Russell says:

    I helped work on a patient that was brought into the ER experiencing an anaphylaxic reaction and the medic had administered “3mg” of Epi.

  • ilene corina says:

    Great blog, thank you. But FYI, it probably isn’t the “inexperience” that you are faced with that causes the patient and family suffering, it is the lack of empathy and compassion that is being lost in healthcare and hopefully, slowly coming back.

  • I think that there are far fewer medication errors in EMS than in the rest of medicine in general, but that’s just a gut feeling.

    I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in medic school we had right patient, right drug, right dose, right route, right rate, pounded into us endlessly.

    It’s like the four rules of firearms. If you follow them religiously, you’re likely to never have a negligent discharge.

  • MG says:

    I’m in paramedic school right now and they are pounding the pt rights into us. They’re very strict about it!

  • Eric Sampson says:

    This blog topic couldn’t be more timely. We literally just started pharmacology and drug math in our medic class. I am forwarding this to my instructor in hopes that he will share this with the rest of our class.

    Every call is an opportunity to do harm and lose your certification. It our job as professional providers to see that doesn’t happen and errors aren’t made. Not to be cliche, but with great power -the power to help or the power to kill- comes great responsibility. This has been told to us a number of times along with -know your medications, read the bottles, and never, NEVER, trust anyone else to draw up or retrieve your drugs. That’s how accidents and errors take place.

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