A new exponentially weighted moving average (EWMA) control chart well suited for ‘online’ routine surveillance of medical procedures is introduced. The chart is based on inter-event counts for failures recorded when the failures occur. The method can be used for many types of hospital procedures and activities, such as problems or errors in surgery, hospital-acquired infections, erroneous handling or prescription of medicine, deviations from scheduled treatments causing inconveniences for patients. The construction, the use and the effectiveness of the control chart are demonstrated by two well-known examples about wound infection in orthopaedic surgery and neonatal arterial switch surgery. The method is easy to implement and apply, it illustrates, estimates and tests the current failure rate. Comparisons with two examples from the literature indicate that its ability to quickly detect an increased failure rate is comparable to that of other well-established methods. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.