The number of people who died in hospitals as a result of medical mistakes is approaching half a million, according to Patient Safety America. Meanwhile, University of Utah researchers discovered that 10 million patients are harmed in hospitals. This epidemic of errors is now the third leading cause of deaths in the United States and results in billions of dollars spent on avoidable medical expenses. Other studies – including one in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2011, based on malpractice suits -- suggested that the problem may be even worse in urgent care centers and private offices.

Medical mistakes not only cost lives and misery but billions of dollars in extra costs, most of which is paid by employers. “Essentially, hospitals are being rewarded for their mistakes,” says Leah Binder, president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group, a business-backed organization that surveys hospitals annually to grade their compliance with safety standards. Among the key findings in their 2013 report was that “on average, there was no improvement in hospitals’ reported performance [over previous years]…” Binder characterized overall progress in patient safety as “glacially slow.”

According to Binder: “Hospitals shift the extra cost of errors onto the patient, the taxpayer and/or the business that buys health benefits for the infected patient.  Our group finds that most companies are paying millions or even billions of extra dollars for the cost of harming their employees. And our estimates are likely conservative. A study in the AMA Journal found that employers paid $39,000 extra every time an employee suffered a surgical site infection.

John James, PhD, who founded Patient Safety America following his son’s death from medical mistakes, attributes the explosion to a combination of “increased complexity of medical practice and technology, the increased incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, overuse/misuse of medications, an aging population, and the movement of the medical industry toward higher productivity and expensive technology, which encourages rapid patient flow and overuse of risky, invasive, revenue-generating procedures.”

At least a dozen groups have been formed to address the issue of patient safety, inspiring some hospitals to become models, such as Virginia Mason Medical Center. The Seattle-based hospital has focused much of its attention on medication miscues. The facility also has been a leader in preventing errors in intensive care units and improving the quality of nursing. For these reasons, Virginia Mason is one of the medical centers included in a guide to safer hospitals developed by AARP in collaboration with Leapfrog.

One of the many mistakes made during surgery is leaving items such as sponges and instruments in the patient’s body after an operation. For no more than $10 per surgery, sponges can be detected when bar-coded and/or tagged with radiofrequency systems. In much the same manner, surgical instruments also could be retrieved. However, only about 15 percent of hospitals use any of this technology. Here’s a case where the mantra should be “No sponge -- or scalpel -- left behind.”

Patient advocacy groups, like West Chester, Pa.’s Genuine Healthcare Resources, also are helping. As an example of one of its intervention-type services, GHR’s Linda Raileanu cites the ability of its team of doctors, nurses and health care professionals to identify incorrectly prescribed medications which could be fatal when the patient’s condition is misdiagnosed. This type of service has enabled GHR to save its clients tens of thousands of dollars on inappropriate care or denials of care – not to mention saving their lives. 

One solution to the problem would be the creation of a national council of patient safety organizations. Such a council could advocate for a patient’s bill of rights, recommend that hospitals not be paid – even fined -- for mistakes, and support placing hospitals on probation, and even revoking the accreditation of repeat offenders. Employers could serve on such a council and those who are members of hospital boards and/or make donations to hospitals could demand that medical centers create an accountable patient safety program with measurable objectives, as well as craft health care plans in which reimbursement is tied to mistake-free outcomes.

Until medical mistakes are reduced, health care centers may soon may be required to warn consumers about the potential hazards lurking in health care facilities with signs that say: “Danger: Hospitals Can Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Jan Peter Ozga is the president of Medical Business Exchange in Vienna, Va. and a member of the advisory board to the Society for the Protection of the Health of Patients.

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