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Medical Errors Report Hits Like 'Nuclear Explosion'

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WebMD Health News

Dec. 28, 1999 (Washington) -- In a city where reports tend to fade faster than cherry blossoms in the spring, the buzz about the Institute of Medicine's gloomy analysis of deadly medical errors in America is expected to linger, if not smolder.

Within days of its release early in December, President Clinton convened medical experts at the White House to discuss how the document, entitled "To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System," could inspire broad reforms aimed at improving patient safety.

"I thought it would have the impact of a nuclear explosion, and I'm delighted that it has had that kind of impact," Lonnie Bristow, MD, tells WebMD. Bristow, a past president of the American Medical Association (AMA), served on the committee that wrote the report. It concludes that medical error claims as many as 98,000 lives annually, making it the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S. -- killing more people than motor vehicle accidents and breast cancer combined.

"If this was a disease ... we wouldn't put a little bit of money into solving that problem, we would invest in understanding its causes," John Eisenberg, MD, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), tells WebMD. At the administration's direction, AHRQ is undertaking a $2 million study of medical error, an effort Eisenberg terms a "down payment" on the problem, which could cost Americans as much as $29 billion annually.

Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that 3,000 medical errors had led to 700 patient deaths in the VA hospital system in an 18-month period ending in December 1988.

Meanwhile, a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that reporting medical errors and offering timely compensation to affected family members can actually stave off malpractice suits.

The Institute of Medicine's (IOM) recommendations, including the creation of a national center for patient safety and mandatory reporting of adverse events, are sure to come up before Capitol Hill committees in the new year.

On the congressional agenda: possible changes in the legal system that would allow providers to report minor mistakes without legal exposure. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to hold hearings on medical error when Congress reconvenes in January, according to staffer Joe Karpinski. A major question for consideration will be how much additional bureaucracy the government needs to generate, if any, to correct existing deficiencies.

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