When patients entrust their health to doctors and hospitals, they should be able to have confidence that they are in good hands. At the very least, they should be able to count on medical personnel to do no harm. Unfortunately, preventable medical errors are far more common than most people realize, and in fact they are the third leading cause of death in the United States. While simple patient safety initiatives could be reducing the death toll, doctors and hospitals often fail to take action, and powerful interests are acting to obfuscate the problem.
In 1999, when the famous “To Err Is Human” report was published by the Institute of Medicine, many disputed the report’s claim that 98,000 people died each year because of hospital errors. The number is now believed to be much larger. In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Patient Safety estimated that between 210,000 and 440,000 people each year die because of preventable harm suffered in a hospital. That makes medical mistakes the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer. Although the numbers from the study are an estimate, the methods and findings have been found credible by several other patient safety researchers.
Medical errors are particularly common in the operating room, with a 2015 study finding that a significant mistake is made in 50 percent of surgeries, either before, during or after the surgery. The study of 275 procedures performed at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that a third of the mistakes resulted in harm to patients. Of adverse drug events with the potential to harm patients, 30 percent were deemed significant, 69 percent were considered serious and below 2 percent were life-threatening.
In a 2014 U.S. Senate hearing on preventable medical errors, Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins University said that some progress has been made, but thousands of patients continue to die unnecessarily because of adverse drug events, preventable blood clots, infections, falls, diagnostic errors and overexposure to medical radiation.
Given the magnitude of the problem, patient safety initiatives should be a top priority. Unfortunately, there are powerful interests working to divert attention from these simple life-saving initiatives. Too often, insurance companies try to spread the idea that there are too many medical malpractice lawsuits, and that the high cost of medical malpractice premiums will drive doctors away, resulting in reduced access to health care. However, only a small percentage of people who suffer injuries from medical mistakes ever file lawsuits, and these plaintiffs deserve justice. The only sensible way to reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits is to reduce the amount of medical malpractice that actually occurs.
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