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Medical Errors Costing U.S. Billions

Mistakes resulted in 238,337 preventable deaths from 2006-08, survey finds

TUESDAY, April 8 (HealthDay News) -- From 2004 through 2006, patient safety errors resulted in 238,337 potentially preventable deaths of U.S. Medicare patients and cost the Medicare program $8.8 billion, according to the fifth annual Patient Safety in American Hospitals Study.

This analysis of 41 million Medicare patient records, released April 8 by HealthGrades, a health care ratings organization, found that patients treated at top-performing hospitals were, on average, 43 percent less likely to experience one or more medical errors than patients at the poorest-performing hospitals.

The overall medical error rate was about 3 percent for all Medicare patients, which works out to about 1.1 million patient safety incidents during the three years included in the analysis.

Among the other findings:

  • Patients who experienced a patient safety incident had a 20 percent chance of dying as a result of the incident.
  • The overall death rate among patients who experienced one or more patient safety incidents fell by almost 5 percent between 2004 and 2006.
  • However, over that time, there were increases in post-operative respiratory failure, post-operative pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis, post-operative sepsis (blood infection), and post-operative abdominal wound separation/splitting.
  • The most common types of medical errors were bed sores, failure to rescue, and post-operative respiratory failure. Together, they accounted for 63.4 percent of incidents. Failure to rescue improved 11.1 percent from 2004 to 2006, while both bed sores and post-operative respiratory failure worsened during that time.
  • Of the 270,491 deaths that occurred among patients who experienced one or more patient safety incidents, 238,337 were potentially preventable, the researchers said.
  • If all hospitals performed at the level of the top-ranked hospitals, about 220,106 patient safety incidents and 37,214 patient deaths could have been avoided, and about $2 billion could have been saved.

"While many U.S. hospitals have taken extensive action to prevent medical errors, the prevalence of likely preventable patient safety incidents is taking a costly toll on our health care systems -- in both lives and dollars," Dr. Samantha Collier, HealthGrades' chief medical officer and primary author of the study, said in a prepared statement.

"HealthGrades has documented in numerous studies the significant and largely unchanging gap between top-performing and poor-performing hospitals. It is imperative that hospitals recognize the benchmarks set by the Distinguished Hospitals for Patient Safety are achievable and associated with higher safety and markedly lower cost," Collier said.

Starting Oct. 1, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will stop reimbursing hospitals for the treatment of eight major preventable errors, including objects left in the body after surgery and certain kinds of post-surgical infections.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines how patients can prevent medical errors.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: HealthGrades, news release, April 8, 2008

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