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Perceptions of Medical Errors in Cancer Care: An Analysis of How the News Media Describe Sentinel Events

Li, Justin W. BA; Morway, Laurinda MEd; Velasquez, Andrew BA; Weingart, Saul N. MD, PhD; Stuver, Sherri O. ScD

doi: 10.1097/PTS.0000000000000039
Original Articles

Objective To analyze the print news media’s coverage of sentinel events involving cancer patients.

Methods Using LexisNexis®, we identified English-language newspaper articles covering medical errors in cancer care between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2010. Articles were coded for 3 major themes using a standardized abstraction instrument: narrative statements and point of view most prominently represented, attribution of blame, and orientation toward patient safety. We also abstracted country where the newspaper was published, type of error event, and extent of patient harm.

Results We analyzed 64 articles from 37 print newspaper syndications that circulated in 6 countries/regions. Reports of medical errors rarely were framed from the point of view of a safety expert or the responsible clinician (13% and 3%, respectively) compared with the patient and legal points of view (both 30%). Articles held individual clinicians (41%) and hospital systems (28%) responsible for most errors. Four in 10 articles failed to present medical errors as “systems” problems. Article perspective varied considerably by country, with 53% of articles from the UK and 63% from Australia and New Zealand judged as negatively slanted compared with 14% in the United States and Canada.

Conclusions In reports of medical errors involving cancer patients, the news media regularly blame individual clinicians for mistakes and fail to present a systems-based understanding of these events.

From the Center for Patient Safety, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts.

Correspondence: Sherri O. Stuver, ScD, Center for Patient Safety, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 450 Brookline Ave, Boston, MA 02215 (e-mail:

The authors disclose no conflict of interest.

Source of funding: Center for Patient Safety, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

© 2015 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins