Circulation 122,210 • Volume 32, No. 1 • June 2017   Issue PDF

To Err is Human; To Tolerate, Inhumane

Joe Kiani; Thornton Kirby

“The greatest danger for most of us isn’t that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”


Technology and pharmacology have transformed health care in our modern world. We are fortunate to live in an age when dedicated health care professionals have at their disposal the tools that enable them to deliver the miracle of healing. Yet despite these gains, too many patients still suffer from preventable human errors that result in permanent harm or death.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published the report “To Err is Human,” and concluded nearly 100,000 patients die from medical errors annually in the United States.¹ A recent study by Dr. Martin Makary and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University puts the devastating number at over 250,000 annually.2 Makary calls for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase the pressure to reduce patient harm by adding medical errors to the CDC’s annual list of the leading causes of death.

Despite these sobering statistics there is cause for optimism. Our two organizations have encountered exceptional colleagues who have demonstrated that it is possible to improve patient care and reduce the frequency of harm in health care settings. We have also discovered that it is easy to get caregivers to embrace a philosophical goal of zero harm, but it is a much more daunting task to have them establish zero as their operational goal.

Today health care organizations take a more proactive approach to preventing harmful events such as health care-associated infections, yet we have a long way to go if we are to catch up with our counterparts in other industries. Consider the following comparison between commercial aviation and hospitals by Dr. Mark Chassin, president of The Joint Commission and a champion of high reliability in health care.3

Between 1990 and 2001, United States commercial airlines flew 9.3 million flights per year and had 129 deaths per year, equivalent to a death rate of 13.9 deaths per million flights. In response, U.S. airlines retooled their operations based on a safety culture built on the principles of high reliability organizations. Between 2002 and 2010, airlines flew 10.6 million flights per year with 18 deaths per year, equivalent to 1.74 deaths per million flights representing an 87% reduction in merely a decade.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine estimated that as many as 98,000 deaths occurred in hospitals each year due to errors in care.1 Estimated deaths corresponded to 34.4 million hospitalizations per year, equivalent to a death rate of 2,800 deaths per million hospitalizations. If we apply Dr. Makary’s recent estimate of 250,000 annual deaths against the same 34.4 million hospitalizations, we would calculate a rate of 7,300 deaths per million hospitalizations. In these comparisons between aviation and hospital settings we note a stark difference. Clearly there is work to be done.

Preventable errors still happen far too often. In 2001, the National Quality Forum (NQF) disseminated a list of what they coined “Never Events”—errors that should never occur in any hospital, no matter the setting.4 As of 2011, the list includes 29 events grouped into 6 categories.5 Most notable, although rare, are wrong-site, wrong-patient, and wrong-procedure surgeries. Other more frequent events include medication errors, falls, and pressure ulcers. In 2007, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that they would no longer pay for additional costs associated with preventable errors.6

One of the contributing factors to health care’s poor safety record is how organizations set improvement goals. Most hospitals set annual goals to reduce harm by some percentage over the previous year. However, there is a fundamental flaw in this approach: it implies that some number of harm events is acceptable, although the intent in setting improvement goals is quite to the contrary.

Generally speaking, fear of failure and lack of leadership commitment seem to be the two greatest obstacles. Let’s consider the most frequent objections and how they can be most effectively countered.

Frequent Objections

“Zero harm is not possible.” The most frequent objection to zero harm goals is grounded in science and statistics. Many health care professionals acknowledge they wish they could eradicate patient harm, but they do not believe it’s possible to completely eliminate medical errors.

“Our compensation system penalizes zero goals.” An increasing number of health systems have established executive compensation incentives tied to quality indicators. Therefore executives may be reluctant to set goals of zero harm for fear of being penalized.

“I can’t control the front-line providers.” A few hospital executives refuse to set zero harm goals because they cannot control the front-line clinicians who must deliver the outcomes.

“We can’t achieve zero harm across the board.” There are some leaders who mistakenly believe that establishing a zero harm goal necessarily requires establishing zero as the goal for all patient harm indicators tracked by the organization.

Successful Responses

Start by setting a goal of Zero Preventable Deaths (not harm). This strategy was adopted by the Board of Trustees at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), CA, with the support of the entire team. Clinicians and hospital administrators feel it is more manageable to strive for zero preventable deaths than to achieve zero harm across the board.

Zero harm is possible. The South Carolina Hospital Association (SCHA) has partnered with The Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare to pursue high reliability. The Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston has been on this journey for years, and presents zero harm awards to its hospitals when they demonstrate 12 consecutive months without harm. The SCHA created a similar “Certified Zero Harm Award,” and in the first 3 years received 258 awards.

Compensation systems should be redesigned to encourage zero harm goals. Rather than establishing compensation incentives that require perfect performance, it may be more prudent to set goals of zero preventable deaths, and tie compensation incentives to progress toward the goal.

Pursuing zero harm is not about controlling behavior, it’s about building a culture of safety. One of the defining characteristics of high reliability organizations is a culture of safety, and that message comes from the top. Once the expectation has been articulated and reinforced, individual behaviors begin to change throughout the organization without constant oversight by leadership.

Start with a goal of zero in one area, and build on that. Although zero harm is the ultimate goal, a complex medical system is unlikely to achieve zero on all harm indicators at once. Instead, hospitals should choose one area of strong performance, and strive to eliminate harm in that area.

Implement processes to prevent human errors from becoming fatal to patients. If your hospital is reluctant to set zero as the objective, then ask them to implement the processes that can help avoid preventable deaths.7 Implement good processes and save lives.

These are the most frequent objections we’ve encountered, but our list is not exhaustive. We are not naïve enough to think preventable harm will be forever eliminate

d in health care settings, but we have seen firsthand the significant progress being made in a small number of organizations in the pursuit to zero.

To err is human, but to tolerate error (by refusing to adopt processes known to prevent human errors from causing harm or death) is inhumane.

The authors wish to express our gratitude and respect for the caregivers who have been so open with us in exploring this topic. Few clinicians or leaders in health care have been willing to set goals of zero, so we are deeply grateful to those who have dedicated themselves to helping us learn what it will take to set the right bar for our industry’s performance.

Thornton Kirby is president and CEO of the South Carolina Hospital Association, an organization committed to zero preventable harm by adopting high reliability principles in a health care setting. Thornton is also a Regional Chair of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation.

Joe Kiani is chairman and CEO of Masimo and founder of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation, a commitment-based and collegial organization that has established a goal of zero preventable deaths by 2020. For more information on processes you can use to eliminate preventable deaths, go to: or

Conflicts of interest: Joe Kiani is an employee of Masimo Corporation and is the founder of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation. Mr. Kiani is also a board member at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, CA. Thornton Kirby is an employee of the South Carolina Hospital Association, and is a regional chair of the Patient Safety Movement Foundation.


  1. Kohn LT, Corrigan JM, Donaldson MS, eds. To err is human: building a safer health system. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, Institute of Medicine; 1999.
  2. Makary MA, Daniel M. Medical error-the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ 2016;353:i2139.
  3. Chassin MR, Loeb JM. High-Reliability health care: getting there from here. The Milbank Quarterly. 2013;91:459–490.
  4. National Quality Forum(NQF). Serious reportable events in healthcare: a consensus report. Washington, DC: National Quality Forum; 2002.
  5. National Quality Forum (NQF). Serious reportable events in healthcare—2011 update: a consensus report. Washington, DC: NQF; 2011.
  6. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Medicare and Medicaid move aggressively to encourage greater patient safety in hospitals and reduce never events.
  7. Patient Safety Movement. Actional Patient Safety Solutions (APPS).