To Err is Human: Documentary Spotlights the Toll of Medical Errors

Every year in the United States, some 440,000 people die from medical mistakes. Preventable medical errors are, in fact, the nation’s third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. A powerful new documentary, To Err is Human, examines this seemingly-intractable crisis facing our medical system and spotlights some of the people working to create a culture of patient safety.

United Hospital Fund, New York Academy of Medicine, and IPRO sponsored an advance screening of the 90-minute documentary and a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Medicine on November 12, to a packed auditorium.


Director Mike Eisenberg is the son of Dr. John Eisenberg, who headed the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) from 1997 until his death in 2002. “To Err is Human is not only an opportunity to reconnect with my father’s legacy, but also to find out how far health care has come since he declared a ‘war on medical errors’ in 1999,” Mr. Eisenberg said.

The film focuses on one family in which both the son and the father were the victims of medical errors, and includes interviews with health care leaders and others who have been critical in advancing the vision of a safe health care system over the past 20 years. It also includes footage of efforts to improve hospital safety, and suggestions for further action. “What’s really vital is that we start to share those more personal stories. Harm and death aren’t just a number. Each life matters, and each life that’s harmed affects many more people,” Mr. Eisenberg said.

Following the screening, Anne-Marie Audet, MD, senior medical officer of UHF’s Quality Institute, chaired a panel that included Eisenberg; Consumers Union director Charles Bell; David Feldman, MD, MBA, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Hospitals Insurance Company; Patricia Gagliano, MD, IPRO’s vice president of  Health Care Quality Improvement; and Marc Napp, MD, senior vice president of medical affairs and deputy chief medical officer at Mount Sinai Health System.

The panel took a deep dive into the issues that can lead to medical errors and efforts to improve safety throughout the health care system. “The harder you look, the more you find,” said Dr. Napp. “We’re a lot further along than we were 15 years ago but we’re not where we need to be.”  Both the panel and the documentary described quality and safety improvements that hospital systems have put in place in the last several years, such as surgical checklists, physician peer review committees, simulations to refine techniques and train clinicians, redesigned care processes, and improved communication and “hand-offs.”  

The audience was also invited to interact with the panelists, raising important issues. At the end of the evening, Dr. Audet concluded by saying that, “given what I’ve heard from Mike, the story teller, film maker, and carrier of his father John Eisenberg’s vision,  from the four dedicated health care professionals on the panel, and from our audience tonight, I think we can say that we all come away with a renewed commitment to contribute by our collective actions to ensure that our patients, our families, and every New Yorker can be free of harm when they seek care. The documentary contributes to keeping the conversation and the work around patient safety alive.”

To learn more about the documentary, please visit the To Err is Human website. A schedule to upcoming screenings can be found here.

One of UHF’s primary missions is to improve the quality and safety of the health care system via its Quality Institute. The Institute has sponsored a wide range of safety improvement projects, including techniques for reducing central line infections, improving antibiotic stewardship, and training physicians and nurses to champion patient safety efforts within their hospitals through its Clinical Quality Fellowship Program.