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Just how many people die from medical mistakes in American hospitals?

October 9, 2013

Just how many people die from medical mistakes in American hospitals? As Scientific American recently explained, researchers have struggled to establish an accurate figure for decades. The Institute of Medicine, a non-governmental non-profit, issued a report in 1999 called “To Err Is Human,” which reported that up to 98,000 people die every year due to mistakes in hospitals. Eleven years later, in 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services claimed that an accurate figure is closer to 180,000 per year. But a recent study conducted by John T. James, a NASA toxicologist, and published in the Journal of Patient Safety, claims that the number is much higher than either of these previously accepted estimates.

This article, printed in the September issue of the journal, is based on a literature review of four separate studies that “used primarily the Global Trigger Tool to flag specific evidence in medical records, such as medication stop orders or abnormal laboratory results, which point to an adverse event that may have harmed a patient. Ultimately, a physician must concur on the findings of an adverse event and then classify the severity of patient harm.” Preventable adverse events fell into several categories: errors of commission, errors of omission, errors of communication, errors of context, and diagnostic errors.

The study’s authors suggest that the actual number of deaths “associated with preventable harm in hospitals” has “a lower limit of 210,000,” but that “the true number of premature deaths associated with preventable harm to patients was estimated at more than 400,000 per year.” As if this number were not staggering enough, the article goes on to say, “Serious harm seems to be 10- to 20-fold more common than lethal harm. In other words, while up to 400,000 people may die due to hospital error every year, the number of patients who suffer “serious harm” may range from four to eight million.

Scientific American rightly notes that if these figures are correct (and they seem to be) this would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in the United States (behind heart disease and cancer). ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalism newsroom, contacted three leading experts in the field of patient safety and “all said his methods and findings were credible.”

The author of the Scientific American article argues that even if the numbers are slightly askew, they will help secure funding and awareness to “a major public health problem that persists despite decades of improvements efforts.”

The author of the journal article said in an interview, “We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this.” The study itself states, “The epidemic of patient harm in hospitals must be taken more seriously if it is to be curtailed. Fully engaging patients and their advocates during hospital care, systematically seeking the patients’ voice in identifying harms, transparent accountability for harm, and intentional correction of root causes of harm will be necessary to accomplish this goal.

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