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Medicare, Hospitals, Serious Harm and Death

Posted Nov 18 2010 12:02am

450px-der_sensemann2 The Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, Daniel R. Levinson, published an Op-ed in USA Today that is well worth considering.  The column, entitled “Medical mistakes plague Medicare patients,” speaks volumes. Levinson writes:

Today’s hospitals are modern-day marvels of healing, and we expect them to be models of patient safety as well. But a just-released report from my office shows that medical care is falling short for too many hospitalized Medicare patients. A decade after an Institute of Medicine study placed preventable medical errors among the leading causes of death in the United States, our latest study found that a disturbing number of hospitalized patients still endure harmful consequences from medical care, 44% of them preventable. These instances, which the report calls “adverse events,” include infections, surgical complications and medication errors

Such occurrences are not always preventable, particularly since many Medicare patients are elderly and have complicated health problems. But enough patient harm is avoidable to make a strong case for action. Hospitals must improve, but they need the help of lawmakers, medical professionals and patients to do so.

We’ve written about this issue before here on HRW (in the context of various calls for medical malpractice reform as part of health care reform and studies that show hospital staff neither washing their hands regularly nor utilizing the simple but effective surgical checklist). The Institute of Medicine study Inspector General Levinson referred to estimated 98,000 deaths per year. Last year I wrote:

Bloomberg reports that “The U.S. Institute of Medicine found a decade ago that medical errors kill 98,000 Americans a year” according to Les Weisbrod, president of the Washington-based trial lawyers’ group, the American Association of Justice .

According to Medical News Today , the medical error fatality figures above were supported by “Dr. Chunliu Zhan and Dr. Marlene R. Miller in a research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in October of 2003. The Zhan and Miller study supported the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 1999 report conclusion, which found that medical errors caused up to 98,000 deaths annually and should be considered a national epidemic.

A study by HealthGrades found more than twice that number in “potentially preventable deaths.”

And now this study. Look at the numbers; they aren’t pretty–and they cast some present doubt on the 98,000 number if one considers the rubric, “contributed to their deaths.” Levinson writes:

Errors prolonged hospital stays

770px-death-and-the-woodcutter-jean-francois-millet3 This study began in response to a congressional mandate to determine the number of harmful medical events Medicare patients experienced, and the cost to taxpayers. My office arranged for physician reviewers to examine a random sample of 780 Medicare patients discharged from hospitals around the country during the month of October 2008.

Physicians determined that about one in seven patients (13.5%) experienced at least one serious instance of harm from medical care that prolonged their hospital stay, caused permanent harm, required life-sustaining intervention, or contributed to their deaths. Projected to the entire Medicare population, this rate means an estimated 134,000 hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries experienced harm from medical care in one month, with the event contributing to death for 1.5%, or approximately 15,000 patients.

That’s per month. Some quick math will give us the yearly death figure: 15,000 x 12 months = 180,000 per year. And that’s just Medicare patients.

The “seriously harmed” equals 1,608,000 per year. Again, just Medicare.

Levinson continues:

Strikingly, medication errors factored in more than half the patient fatalities in our sample, including use of the wrong drug, giving the wrong dosage, or inadequately treating known side effects. Such events were commonly caused by hospital staff diagnosing patients incorrectly or failing to closely monitor their conditions.

Less serious harm also occurred. An additional one in seven hospitalized Medicare patients experienced temporary problems, such as allergic reactions or injuries from falls. And many experienced multiple events, including an elderly heart patient who had six separate events during a single hospital stay. Obviously, this situation is unacceptable and expensive, costing taxpayers more than $4 billion a year due to the need for additional treatment or longer hospitalizations (and even more if you add costs for follow-up care).

mort I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. “Seemingly, one would define “defensive medicine” as that which a doctor [or hospital] does, which he or she would not do, if solely exercising his or her [or its] discretion without the fear of being sued. Therefore, might I suggest that “defensive medicine” is only excessive if the doctor’s [or hospital's] best estimation of the situation is correct.”

You can read the rest of Inspector General Levinson’s Op-ed here . He offers some direction– much needed direction.

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