Send to

Choose Destination
See comment in PubMed Commons below
Ann Fam Med. 2004 Jul-Aug;2(4):317-26.

A string of mistakes: the importance of cascade analysis in describing, counting, and preventing medical errors.

Author information

  • 1Department of Family Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA.



Notions about the most common errors in medicine currently rest on conjecture and weak epidemiologic evidence. We sought to determine whether cascade analysis is of value in clarifying the epidemiology and causes of errors and whether physician reports are sensitive to the impact of errors on patients.


Eighteen US family physicians participating in a 6-country international study filed 75 anonymous error reports. The narratives were examined to identify the chain of events and the predominant proximal errors. We tabulated the consequences to patients, both reported by physicians and inferred by investigators.


A chain of errors was documented in 77% of incidents. Although 83% of the errors that ultimately occurred were mistakes in treatment or diagnosis, 2 of 3 were set in motion by errors in communication. Fully 80% of the errors that initiated cascades involved informational or personal miscommunication. Examples of informational miscommunication included communication breakdowns among colleagues and with patients (44%), misinformation in the medical record (21%), mishandling of patients' requests and messages (18%), inaccessible medical records (12%), and inadequate reminder systems (5%). When asked whether the patient was harmed, physicians answered affirmatively in 43% of cases in which their narratives described harms. Psychological and emotional effects accounted for 17% of physician-reported consequences but 69% of investigator-inferred consequences.


Cascade analysis of physicians' error reports is helpful in understanding the precipitant chain of events, but physicians provide incomplete information about how patients are affected. Miscommunication appears to play an important role in propagating diagnostic and treatment mistakes.

Comment in

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article
PubMed Commons home

PubMed Commons

How to join PubMed Commons

    Supplemental Content

    Full text links

    Icon for HighWire Icon for PubMed Central
    Loading ...
    Support Center