Why It Happens & How to Reduce It

As Canadians, we take pride in the accessibility of our healthcare system. And for good reason.

Accessibility does not, however, guarantee safety.

So the question remains: just how safe are Canadian hospitals?

A Canadian Health Institute for Health Information study came back with shocking results: In 2019-2020, 1 in 18 hospital stays in Canada (excluding Quebec) involved at least one harmful event. That’s a total of 134,000 out of 2.5 million hospital stays. Further, nearly 22% of that group reported having more than one adverse event that compromised their care.

While the majority of patients reported no issues, these adverse events can have serious impacts on the lives of the individuals affected and their families.

These harmful events were categorized as health care and medication-related (45%), infection-related (30%), procedure-related (21%), and patient accident (4%) events.

What makes this an even more upsetting statistic? Many of these harms were preventable.

Lack of communication between staff, misunderstanding or dismissal of patient concerns, and accidents and mistakes make up a lot of the underlying reasons behind these events.

Data shows that those most at-risk for such events are patients with multiple medical conditions, and the risk increases as an individual’s condition become more complex. This is due to the number of specialists involved, complex health statuses, and more precarious health.

The data does not reveal if any of these incidents are directly related to fatalities, particularly in the cases of those with many life-threatening conditions. What can be concluded, however, is the massive financial burden these events pose: approximately 500,000 additional hospital days, costing around $685 million.

Davis, the co-chair of Patients for Patient Safety Canada, said the latest report on patient harm is “a huge step in the right direction” toward educating healthcare workers, patients and their families about the risks associated with hospital stays.

“It was a very hard thing for people in health care to accept that the care that was intended to heal people was actually harming them. (Healthcare) providers don’t go to work to harm people, and it’s very devastating when they have to face the fact that the care they did give caused harm.”

Prevention can be achieved through improved education and communication. Morris, vice-president of research and analysis at the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), emphasizes that “preventable harm can occur in all areas of the hospital and it’s everyone’s responsibility to learn as best they can from these events and work to reduce the potential for harm.”

Advocates for reducing patient harm at the Canadian Patient Safety Institute are calling for patients and healthcare providers to become partners in care, as opposed to traditional hierarchical patient-expert relations that leave questions unanswered and concerns unaddressed. The unique traits and needs of individual patients must be recognized to a greater extent, and patients must be able to advocate for themselves and have their questions and concerns responded to in a timely manner.

Increased resources in hospitals and other healthcare facilities would result in more time for specialists to meet with patients and families, to communicate with one another, and provide better treatment. Fewer patients per professional, new technologies, and better data management can help eliminate communication errors and catch accidents faster.

Data is now being collected by the Canadian Health Institute for Health Information on these events in order to inform procedures, policies and methods that will aim to reduce these numbers.