Report: Medical Errors in Hospitals

Roman Bystrianyk, "Report: Medical Errors in Hospitals", Health Sentinel,

May 20, 2005,

Health Grades, Inc., a healthcare quality ratings and service company, released a report in May detailing the state of patient safety in United States Hospitals. Their analysis was based on three years of Medicare data from 2001 to 2003.

“Based on the IOM [ Institute of Medicine] estimates, the United States loses more American lives to patient safety incidents every six months than it did in the entire Vietnam War. This also equates to three fully loaded jumbo jets crashing every other day for the last five years. If medical errors were recognized by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in its annual National Vital Statistics Report, they would be ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. According to the report, deaths due to medical errors would outrank deaths due to diabetes, influenza, and pneumonia, Alzheimer’s disease and renal disease.”

The authors note in their report that since the 2000 IOM report that the healthcare industry has moved from a position of denying the scope of the problem of medical errors to being more accepting of making changes to tackle this crisis. However, current efforts have not resulted in an IOM 2000 goal of reducing medical errors by 50 percent within five years. The report shows that a large number of patient safety incidents occurred during the 3 years of 2001 to 2003.

“Approximately 1.18 million total patient safety incidents (PSIs) occurred among the nearly 39 million hospitalizations in the Medicare population during 2001 through 2003. Of the total of 298,865 deaths among patients who developed one or more PSIs during 2001 through 2003, 81 percent (241,280) of these deaths were attributable to the patient safety incidents.”

“Although mortality attributable to medical errors and injury is relatively rare and overall mortality rates among Medicare beneficiaries have been declining steadily, we determined that the 16 PSIs studied may still have contributed to 241,280 deaths from 2001 through 2003. This translates to approximately 20 percent overall mortality rate in Medicare patients potentially attributable to patient safety incidents. More simply stated, one in every five Medicare patients who were hospitalized from 2001 to 2003, and experienced a patient safety incident, died compared to only 0.18 of every five (3.57%) Medicare patients who did not experience a patient safety incident.”

The report also notes that patient safety is also a global problem. “Studies in a number of countries have shown a rate of adverse events of 3.5 percent to 16.6 percent among hospitalized patients. These global estimates likely represent only the tip of the medical-errors-iceberg.”

Many of the steps that greatly reduce complications and save lives are already known. For example, washing hands is well known to be a simple and established way of reducing the more than 2 million hospital-acquired infections each year. Unfortunately, a 2004 study showed that 57% of physicians do not wash their hands after contact with patients and 67% of those that did not wash their hands thought it was “too difficult”. The report states that, “if the bottom 10% hospitals improved only their hospital-acquired infection rates to the level of top 10% hospitals, 2,734 deaths associated with $792 million could have been avoided from 2001 to 2003.” In the Appendix the report lists the hospitals that received HealthGrades Distinguished Hospital Award for Patient Safety.

The authors conclude that while the United States provides some of the best health care in the world, the number of medical errors continues to be at “unacceptably high levels.” Not only are the number of errors high they are increasing among Medicare beneficiaries. They note that if healthcare providers can implement what is known to work and also be rewarded for it the goal of reducing the number of medical errors by 50% in 10 years is achievable. The full report is available at