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One in Three Hospital Patients Face Medical or Surgical Mistakes — Study Results

January 18, 2012

Diane Sawyer and her ABC World News team recently produced a segment about medical malpractice and its costs (financial, emotional, and physical). Sawyer presents a startling figure that is enough to scare any American: one in three patients who enter a hospital will face a medical or surgical mistake during their stay. “Mistakes are happening at 10 times the rate we thought. It’s not that hospitals are getting worse, it’s that the technology that tracks errors is getting better,” a reporter states.

The study from which this information comes is a survey of 795 patient records. Of the hundreds of documents reviewed using standard methods of error-detection, only 35 contained mistakes. When researchers applied a new, more comprehensive computerized method, that number jumped to a staggering 354. This is the basis for the one-in-three figure.

The most common mistakes listed in the report are incorrect medication (both type and dosage), surgical mistakes like operating on the wrong part of the body, and infections acquired at the hospital.

One of the two patients profiled in Sawyer’s story was an hours-old newborn baby who was given a morphine drip intended for her mother. She flat-lined in the mother’s arms before she could be resuscitated. “There should be no way that a very small IV line of a four-and-a-half pound baby should be confused with that of a full-grown woman. That should not happen,” said the baby’s father.

The other patient is a man who went to the hospital for surgery on his right knee and left the hospital with his left knee in bandages. “Now I got two bad knees-two knees that don’t work,” he said. He now faces lifelong problems walking and even standing due to his surgeon’s mistake.

The report explains that one of the most important things patients can do is to make sure their hospital uses a bar code system to match patients with their correct medication and patient history and that patients discuss their surgical procedures extensively with their doctors ahead of time. Feldman Shepherd attorney Ezra Wohlgelernter said, “Even though this system is much quicker and more accurate, mistakes can still happen.”

“We have always had problems with hard copies of medical records, but now there is a different spin on their efficacy and safety,” said Wohlgelernter. “Specifically, physicians who are asked to provide a specialized consultation will merely ‘cut and paste’ the patient’s previous history without verifying the accuracy of the previous clinician’s observations and recommendations.” He said, “Any error in the first history spreads like a virus in the patient’s medical record, and this can result in a dangerous compromise of medical safety.”

The report concludes with a startling economic figure: medical mistakes cost the United States about $17 billion per year. Watch Diane Sawyer’s report or read one of our previous blog posts to learn more, including how to protect yourself from preventable medical mistakes.

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