News break: 1 in 7 Medicare patients seriously harmed by hospitals

I’m giving a speech at a conference this morning, so this has to be quick, but I can’t let it pass by, and neither should anyone else: It’s huge, sad news.

The Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services released a report this morning showing that 13.1 percent of Medicare patients experienced a medical error during hospital stays that caused serious patient harm: prolonged hospital stay, permanent harm, life-sustaining intervention, or death.

If you project the study population — 780 patients over one month in October 2008 — out to the US population, that’s the equivalent of 134,000 people suffering serious medical harm in a year.

One and half percent of the patients died as a result of those errors: the equivalent of 15,000 patients in a year.

And an additional 13.5 percent experienced a medical error that caused them temporary harm.

And those adverse events, permanent or temporary, caused — just in the study month — an additional $324 million in health care spending.

And — if your jaw hasn’t dropped to the floor by now, this will do it — FORTY-FOUR PERCENT of those harms and errors were preventable. (Sorry to shout.)

Just. Outrageous.

And the government agrees, saying in the report’s Executive Summary that these errors are occurring at an “alarming rate.” (p. iv)

Those of you who are on the hospital and infection control sides of the aisle will know how long — and sometimes seemingly fruitless — the struggle against medical error has been. (Medical error includes hospital infections, which include MRSA, the subject of my recent book and therefore my part-time obsession.) It seems sometimes that we have done nothing since the publication of To Err is Human, the seminal 2000 Institute of Medicine report that exposed the rate of medical error in the US to be at least 98,000 events a year, but rack up fresh estimates of horror.

The report came out of the new initiative by the HHS Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to deny reimbursement for care following adverse events, as a carrot-and-stick approach to attempting to force errors down. It is dry and sober and precise in its methodology, and not long, less than 80 pages. It is worth reading in its entirety.

(H/t to my AHCJ colleague Charles Ornstein of ProPublica, who flagged the report’s release on Twitter.)

Image by Flickr user Romana Klee under CC


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