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Technology Increases Hospital Transparency, Exposes Medical Errors

May 6, 2014

All too often, news about medical safety is relegated to academic journals and other industry publications. So when a mainstream news organization publishes an article stating the sobering fact that medical errors kill about half a million patients every year in the United States (that’s more than 1000 a day), it is hard to ignore. This article, published online by MSNBC and titled “Can We Make US Medicine Less Dangerous?”, reports that a non-profit organization called Leapfrog Group has developed a “user-friendly report card” that allows anyone to “inspect the safety records of 2,523 acute-care hospitals at a glance.”

Coincidentally, this was one of the suggestions that Johns Hopkins professor and surgeon Marty Makary made in his Wall Street Journal article “How to Stop Hospitals from Killing Us,” which this blog covered in October 2012. Dr. Makary argued that given our current trend of rating things like restaurants and barbershops on our smartphones, we should extend the same analytic tendency to hospitals and doctors’ offices. We may also view this attempt at increased transparency–through shaming–as similar to efforts at eliminating food-borne illnesses in Los Angeles and New York. In the past few decades, local regulations have required restaurants to publicly post their sanitation scores, which have been correlated with sharp declines in cases of food poisoning. Of course, medical malpractice and the injuries and deaths it causes are much larger problems.

The president and founder of Leapfrog claims bluntly that “[m]edical errors kill a population the size of Miami every year,” and that it is the mission of the group to combine publicly-available information, with voluntary surveys in an effort to ascertain the safety standing of a hospital in relation to others. Analysts from Leapfrog combine this data, plot it onto a curve, and then assign individual hospitals an easily understandable letter grade. The organization reports that the average letter score has increased by six percent in the past two years and that this new visibility has hospitals “working harder to create a safe environment, [which is] good news for patients.”

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What is not good news, however, is that the nation’s health care system is still functioning below an acceptable standard. For example, nearly two hundred hospitals received Ds or Fs, which means they may be up to 2.7 times more dangerous than those that scored an A. Moreover, Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. are all without a single A-grade hospital. Toxicologist John T. James writes in the Journal of Patient Safety, “Our country is distinguished for its patchwork of medical care subsystems that can require patients to bounce around in a complex maze of providers.” As more and more providers spring up to meet the demands of the eight million Americans who have just signed up for health insurance via the Affordable Care Act, these Leapfrog scores may help patients navigate the complex web of health care facilities across the country.

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