Medical Errors Stubbornly Common, Studies Find

John Commins, December 2, 2010

It's been 11 years since the Institute of Medicine reported in December 1999 that medical errors caused more than 98,000 deaths and injured more than 1 million people each year. Unfortunately, the results from two recent studies indicate that—despite a lot of focus and effort—the nation's hospitals have not significantly reduced medical errors, which still lead to tens of thousands of deaths each year.

Hospital advocates don't dispute the findings, but they also don't believe the last 10 years were a lost decade. They believe that progress has been made, even if it is not immediately apparent.

"It was discouraging not to see more evidence that the hard work that has gone on in the past decade has had as substantial an impact as we believe it has. But the studies are what the studies are," says Nancy Foster, vice president for quality at the American Hospital Association.

"There are enormous numbers of hospitals engaged in a number of activities directly addressing patient safety issues. Are we there yet? No. It is a multifaceted problem that requires a multifaceted approach," she says. "We have to keep hammering at it until we get to the level of safety that we expect of ourselves and the public rightfully expects of us. As these studies suggest, we have a ways to go."

The studies—one from Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the other from the New England Journal of Medicine—indicate that medical errors remain widespread, common, and deadly. The OIG study found that one in seven Medicare beneficiaries suffers an adverse event during a hospital stay, and those events, nearly half of them preventable, contributed to at least 15,000 deaths in a single month.

The second study, published in the Nov. 25 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, examined 2,300 randomly selected patients' records at 10 hospitals in North Carolina from 2002-2007 and found 588 instances of "patient harm," including surgical errors, hospital falls, misdiagnoses, medication errors, and hospital-acquired infections. Fifty of the incidents were considered life threatening, and 14 people died, according to the study.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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