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Medical Errors Still Plague U.S. Hospitals

Report: In-Hospital Medical Errors Responsible for 195,000 Deaths Each Year

Medical Errors Hamper Hospitals

In the study, researchers looked at rates of 16 common patient safety incidents among Medicare patients treated in every hospital in the U.S. from 2000 to 2002 and assessed the impact of these events on death and medical costs.

It found more than a million patient safety incidents caused by medical errors occurred from 2000 through 2002 among the 37 million Medicare hospitalizations studied, which resulted in more than $8.5 billion in additional medical costs over three years.

Of the nearly 324,000 deaths that occurred among Medicare patients who experienced a patient safety incident, researchers say more than 80% of these deaths were preventable and attributable to the patient safety incident.

Three types of medical errors accounted for almost 60% of patient safety incidents:

  • Failure to diagnose and treat in time: 155 incidents per 1,000 at-risk hospitalizations
  • Bed sores (skin and deeper tissue ulcers that form as a result of constant pressure on a particular site of the body): 30 cases per 1,000 at-risk hospitalizations
  • Infection following surgery: 13 incidents per 1,000 at-risk hospitalizations

Failure to diagnose and treat in time and unexpected death in a low-risk patient accounted for nearly 75% of all deaths attributable to patient safety incidents.

As shown by previous studies, researchers found that Medicare patients had a higher rate of patient safety incidents than other patient groups.

The study also showed that medical errors were more common among patients who had been admitted to a hospital for a medical condition rather than a surgical reason. Among those who suffered from medical errors, heart failure and pneumonia were the two top reasons for admission.

Recommendations for Reducing Medical Errors

Researchers say the number of medical errors found by this study may represent only the tip of the iceberg. They say the volume of medical errors found in this report is lower than those reported by others, which they say is most likely because they analyzed only selected types of incidents that occurred during hospitalization of Medicare patients.

Researchers recommend that until effective strategies are developed to reduce medical errors overall, focused improvement efforts in four key areas could yield substantial benefits.

"If we could focus our efforts on just four key areas -- failure to rescue, bed sores, postoperative [infection] and postoperative pulmonary embolism [a blood clot in the lung] -- and reduce those incidents by just 20%, we could prevent save 39,000 people from dying every year," says Collier.

In addition to releasing its findings on patient safety, Health Grades also released its first annual Distinguished Hospital Award for Patient Safety. The awards were given to 88 hospitals in 23 states for having the nation's lowest rates of medical errors and patient safety incidents. For a list of winners, see www.healthgrades.com.

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