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Preventing Deaths Due to Medical Errors

How many patients die in the hospital as a result of preventable medical errors? While debate continues over estimates based on flawed data, the U.S. healthcare system can and must implement effective strategies to reduce adverse events and deaths, according to a perspective article in the Journal of Patient Safety.

Three recent reports on deaths due to medical error in U.S. hospitals have estimated the figure to be greater than 200,000 deaths per year, according to Kevin T. Kavanagh, MD, MS, of Health Watch USA, and colleagues. “Our utmost concern is that-despite having the knowledge to prevent adverse events-many health systems do not adequately invest in patient safety to put well-known safety improvement strategies in place,” Kavanagh said.

The authors added their perspective as patient advocates to the ongoing debate over the number of in-hospital deaths due to medical errors. These deaths encompass a wide range of preventable causes, such as bed ulcers, hospital-acquired infections, blood clots (embolism), surgical errors, and misdiagnosis.

In response to the recently reported figures, some in the healthcare industry have pointed out shortcomings of the measures used in the analyses. These critics have cited the difficulty of proving a specific cause of death; others argue that many causes can be traced back to patients’ lifestyle choices and many patients are near death at the time of the incident. But Kavanagh and co-authors wrote, “Even if the unintended event only shortens life by a few days, it does not mitigate the severity of the event.”

All agree that better-quality data is needed. Meanwhile, abundant evidence suggests that the currently available data-based on “voluntary and nonaudited reporting mechanisms”-likely underestimates the true rate of preventable events.

“The United States healthcare system as a whole can substantially decrease the incidence of adverse events and associated deaths,” Kavanagh and co-authors wrote. They noted that there are known solutions to reduce the risk of adverse events-particularly investment in adequate nursing levels and a culture of safety.

While acknowledging imperfect data, they wrote, “The onus should not be on consumers but on the healthcare industry to generate comprehensive data to demonstrate that their product is safe.”

“In what other industry would such a record be tolerated, let alone defended?” Kavanagh and co-authors ask. “Would the airline industry and public ever tolerate even a single preventable airline crash? We can and must do better.”

This article was adapted from information provided by Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.