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Patterns of Errors Contributing to Trauma Mortality: Lessons Learned From 2594 Deaths

Gruen, Russell L. MD, PhD; Jurkovich, Gregory J. MD; McIntyre, Lisa K. MD; Foy, Hugh M. MD; Maier, Ronald V. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.sla.0000234655.83517.56
Original Articles

Objective: To identify patterns of errors contributing to inpatient trauma deaths.

Methods: All inpatient trauma deaths at a high-volume level I trauma center from 1996 to 2004 inclusive were audited. Data were collected with daily trauma registry chart abstraction, weekly morbidity and mortality reports, hospital quality assurance reports, and annual trauma registry analyses of risk of death using TRISS and HARM methodology. Deaths that met criteria for low to medium probability of mortality or those with quality of care concerns were analyzed for errors and then subjected to 3-stage peer review at weekly departmental, monthly hospital, and annual regional forums. Patterns of errors were constructed from the compiled longitudinal data.

Results: In 9 years, there were 44,401 trauma patient admissions and 2594 deaths (5.8%), of which 601 met low to medium mortality risks. Sixty-four patients (0.14% admissions, 2.47% deaths) had recognized errors in care that contributed to their death. Important error patterns included: failure to successfully intubate, secure or protect an airway (16%), delayed operative or angiographic control of acute abdominal/pelvic hemorrhage (16%), delayed intervention for ongoing intrathoracic hemorrhage (9%), inadequate DVT or gastrointestinal prophylaxis (9%), lengthy initial operative procedures rather than damage control surgery in unstable patients (8%), over-resuscitation with fluids (5%), and complications of feeding tubes (5%). Resulting data-directed institutional and regional trauma system policy changes have demonstrably reduced the incidence of associated error-related deaths.

Conclusions: Preventable deaths will occur even in mature trauma systems. This review has identified error patterns that are likely common in all trauma systems, and for which policy interventions can be effectively targeted.

Patterns of errors contributing to trauma deaths over 9 years at a high-volume center were identified and described. Institutional protocols demonstrably reduced error-associated deaths. The clinical error categories and error minimization strategies emphasized may have wide applicability.

From the Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Reprints: Gregory J. Jurkovich, MD, Department of Surgery, Harborview Medical Center, Box 359796, 325 Ninth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104. E-mail:

© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.