Martine Ehrenclou felt sidelined when her mother was admitted to the hospital for acute pancreatitis.
"I didn't know what I was supposed to do and what my role was in her care," said Ehrenclou, 51, of Los Angeles. "I just thought I needed to comfort my mother and just talk to the doctors."
But what was explained to Ehrenclou as a common procedure for the condition turned fatal. While in the hospital, Ehrenclou's mother, who was 71, acquired a host of complications including pneumonia and a staph infection.
Within five months, Ehrenclou's mother died.
"It just happens," Ehrenclou recalled hospital staff members telling her.
"I didn't even know what to ask about what her medical records said, and whether there was anything indicated about a medical error," she said.
Hospital staff members could have made some mistakes with her mother's care, but Ehrenclou would never know.
A new report released Friday by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that more than 80 percent of hospital errors go unreported by hospital employees.
The report, which looked at data from hospitalized Medicare patients, also found that most hospitals where errors were reported rarely changed their policies and practices to prevent repeat errors, saying the event did not reveal any "systemic quality problems."
The errors included overused or wrong medications, severe bedsores, hospital-based infections and even patient death.
In order to be paid by Medicare, hospitals are required to track and analyze medical errors. But organizations that inspect hospitals loosely regulate hospital tracking records, the study said.
Also, many hospital employees may not recognize "what constitutes patient harm," or they may not realize that particular events harmed patients and should be reported, according to the report.
The national report looked at nearly 300 adverse patient events acquired from medical records and traced the records back to its respective hospitals to see whether the hospitals had identified medical error. The report found very few hospitals did.
Sixty-one percent of unreported cases were not perceived as errors by hospital staff. The remaining 25 percent of unreported cases were situations that were typically reported by the staff, but happened not to be reported.
"We're always going to make mistakes," said Dr. Peter Pronovost, medical director at the Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care at Johns Hopkins University Medical School of Medicine. "What we need to do is reduce harm."
The more serious events, like hospital-acquired infections and patient deaths, were no more likely to be reported than the smaller cases, like allergic reactions to medications.
Pronovost created a standard patient safety checklist for commonly performed procedures that are implemented in hospitals nationwide.
"We haven't used a checklist, in part, because we haven't acknowledged our fallibility and that we need a cognitive aid," said Pronovost.
The Center for Medicare Services also plans to develop and distribute a list of adverse events that should be reported, said Ruth Ann Dorrill, deputy regional inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.
"The hospital staff and managers want to treat their patients well," said Dorrill. "By identifying what's happening to patients, that'll provide a learning process."
Staff members may have feared retribution or may have not wanted to report their own colleagues, Dorrill said.