Preventable medical errors are responsible for at least 210,000 deaths a year, and might cause as many as 400,000 annual deaths, according to a new study published in the Journal of Patient Safety.
The estimates are based on the findings of four recent studies that identified preventable harm suffered by patients–known as “adverse events”–using a screening method called the Global Trigger Tool, which guides reviewers through medical records, searching for signs of infection, injury or error. Medical records flagged during the initial screening are reviewed by a physician, who determines the extent of the harm.
The author of the study concluded that, “action and progress on patient safety is frustratingly slow [and] one must hope that the present, evidence-based estimate… will foster an outcry for overdue changes and increased vigilance in medical care.”
Past Research On Hospital Negligence
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the well-known “To Err is Human” report, which shocked the medical community when it reported that up to 98,000 people a year die due to mistakes in hospitals. The number was initially disputed, but then became widely accepted as accurate. In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services said that bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 Medicare patients alone in a given year.
Hospital Negligence Is A Major Public Health Issue
The current research that estimates deaths caused by hospital error to be between 210,000 and 400,000 is appalling. This number makes medical errors the third leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer.
The recent study was developed by John T. James, a toxicologist at NASA’s space center in Texas. James runs an advocacy group called “Patient Safety America,” and he has written a book about the death of his 19 year old son, who was a victim of negligent hospital care.
Patient safety experts say measuring the problem is important because estimates bring awareness and research dollars to a major public health problem that persists despite decades of improvement efforts.
“We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this,” James said in an interview.
In the current study in the Journal of Patient Safety, researchers found serious adverse events in as many as 21 percent of cases reviewed, and rates of lethal adverse events as high as 1.4 percent of all cases.
The study’s finding of 210,000 preventable deaths per year is just the baseline. The actual number more than doubles, James reasoned, because the trigger tool doesn’t catch errors in which treatment should have been provided but was not, because it is known that medical records are missing some evidence of harm, and because diagnostic errors are not captured.
An estimate of 440,000 deaths from care in hospitals “is roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year,” James wrote in his study. He also cited other research that has shown that hospital reporting systems and peer-review capture only a fraction of patient harm or negligent care.
“Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients,” James wrote. “All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”
Dr. David Classen, one of the leading developers of the Global Trigger Tool, said the James study is a sound use of the tool and a “great contribution.” He said that it is important to update the numbers from the “To Err Is Human” report because in addition to the obvious suffering, preventable harm leads to enormous financial costs.
Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital whose book “Unaccountable” calls for greater transparency in health care, said that the James estimate shows that eliminating medical errors must become a national priority. Makary also stated that it is important to increase the awareness of the potential of unintended consequences that can occur when physicians perform procedures and tests. The risk of harm needs to be factored into conversations with patients, he said.
American Hospital Associate Will Not Use The New Research
The American Hospital Association (AHA) spokesman Akin Demehin said the group is sticking with the Institute of Medicine’s estimate, as opposed to the recent one in the Journal of Patient Safety. Demehin said the Institute of Medicine’s figure is based on a larger sampling of medical charts and that there is no consensus that the Global Trigger Tool can be used to make a nationwide estimate. Demehin said the tool is better suited for use in individual hospitals.
The AHA is not attempting to come up with its own estimate, Demehin said.
Dr. David Mayer, the vice president of quality and safety at Maryland-based MedStar Health, said that people can make arguments about how many patient deaths are hastened by poor hospital care, but that is not really the point. All the estimates–even those on the low end–expose a crisis, he said.
“Way too many people are being harmed by unintentional medical error,” Mayer said, “and it needs to be corrected.”
Help For Victims Of Hospital Negligence
With hospital negligence on the rise, it is very important for patients to take an active role in their medical care. If you are ever in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have already been injured as a result of a hospital error, please contact the nationally recognized attorneys at Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers for a free consultation. We have decades of experience in the field of medical malpractice and our numerous multi-million dollar verdicts attest to our success. Our toll free number is 888-419-2229.