WASHINGTON, July 17 – Preventable medical errors in hospitals are the third leading cause of death in the United States, a Senate panel was told today. Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans.
“Medical harm is a major cause of suffering, disability, and death – as well as a huge financial cost to our nation,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said at the outset of the hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. “This is a problem that has not received anywhere near the attention that it deserves and today I hope that we can focus a spotlight on this matter of such grave consequence,” added Sanders, the panel’s chairman.
The Journal of Patient Safety recently published a study which concluded that as many as 440,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors in hospitals. Tens of thousands also die from preventable mistakes outside hospitals, such as deaths from missed diagnoses or because of injuries from medications.
The new research followed up on a landmark study, To Err is Human, conducted by the Institute of Medicine 15 years ago, when researchers reported that as many as 98,000 people die in hospitals each year due to preventable medical errors. Experts now say that figure was too low and hospitals have been too slow to make improvements.
There has been some progress, Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins University testified. Yet thousands of patients still are dying unnecessarily from infections, preventable blood clots, adverse drug events, falls, over exposure to medical radiation and diagnostic errors. “We need to declare right now that preventable harm is unacceptable and work to prevent all types of harm,” Pronovost said.
Compared to the rest of the world, the United States is about average. “While average is OK, given that we spend more on health care than any other country we should be a lot better. Our high spending is not buying us particularly safe care,” said Dr. Ashish Jha of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Other reports have examined the impact of medical mistakes on segments of America’s patient population. A Department of Health and Human Services report in 2010 said 180,000 Medicare patients die each year from preventable adverse events in the hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011 said 1-in-25 hospital patients get an infection from being in the hospital; 700,000 of them get sick as a result and 75,000 die.
In addition to deaths and injuries, medical errors also cost billions of dollars. One 2011 study put the figure at $17 billion a year. Counting indirect costs like lost productivity due to missed work days, medical errors may cost nearly $1 trillion each year, according to a 2012 report in the Journal of Health Care Finance. Lisa McGiffert of Consumers Union spoke about the everyday impact on individuals and families. “People who are harmed lose their jobs, their homes, their insurance. Many go bankrupt trying to pay the medical bills that they would not have had if they had not been harmed by a health care provider,” she said.