Preventable Medical Errors in Hospitals Third Leading Cause of Death in U. S.

Patient safety should be the top priority of hospitals but recent studies show hospitals may be some of the deadliest places you can enter. A 2013 study from the Journal of Patient Safety1 found that up to 440,000 people die annually in U. S. hospitals from preventable medical errors, making it the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer.2

According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), 1 in 3 people hospitalized in the United States will be a victim of a preventable medical error, and 1,000 patients will die each week for reasons unrelated to why they entered the hospital in the first place. This silent epidemic is quietly killing the equivalent of four jumbo jets full of people every week.3

A 2011 study by Health Grades Hospital Quality in America found that over 40,000 harmful or lethal errors occur in hospitals each day. Preventable fatal errors include such things as lethal mistakes in medication dosage, infection and death caused by sponges or instruments left inside a patient, and death due to deadly bacterial infections and superbugs transmitted by healthcare workers who fail to follow basic cleanliness standards including washing their hands or sterilizing medical and diagnostic equipment before use.

These deadly statistics are hard to ignore since at some point in our lives most of us will be in a hospital for medical treatment of a disease, due to an accident, or for surgery.

What can be done to reduce lethal preventable errors?

Dr. Marty Makary, Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon and author of “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care,” makes bold recommendations to reduce preventable medical errors and, in turn, reduce the number of hospital patient deaths due to error.

Dr. Makary proposes a new culture of openness and believes more transparency by hospitals about medical mistakes may shift the focus more toward patient safety and help prevent the same mistakes from happening time and again.

Dr. Makary proposes the following reforms to achieve transparency: publish a public record of individual hospitals’ safety factors including the number and type of infections, readmission rates, types of surgeries done and surgical complications, and “never event” errors (errors that should never occur)4; use cameras in hospitals to ensure doctors and healthcare workers are following established medical procedures and washing their hands before touching each patient; implement an “open notes” procedure where doctors dictate their opinions in front of the patient so mistakes and miscommunications can be corrected immediately; and eliminate “gag” orders in malpractice settlements so consumers can make a more informed hospital choice based on safety factors.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Medical Error?

We support Dr. Makary’s proposals, but until hospitals improve their patient safety records and their transparency about patient safety measures, you still need to advocate for yourself and your loved ones and put your own safety measures in place. Do not leave your safety to chance, regardless of a hospital’s reputation.

  • If you have a choice of hospital, check out Hospital Safety Score to see how hospitals in your area score on safety issues to make a more informed choice about where you receive care. http://www.hospitalsafetyscore.org
  • Ask a trusted family member or friend to be with you at the hospital acting as your eyes and ears to observe and ask questions of healthcare workers to help minimize mistakes. This is especially true for people who will be anesthetized, the elderly and children who cannot advocate for themselves.
  • Ask questions and take notes. As soon as you enter the hospital, you are at risk for being the victim of a medical error so speak up if something doesn’t feel or seem right to you. You must give your consent before anything is done to you, so make sure you understand everything before you agree to anything.
  • Wash your hands and insist that all healthcare workers wash theirs before touching you. The spread of infection at surgical and exposure to potentially deadly superbugs like MRSA and C. diff can be reduced dramatically with simple soap and water.

Taking these steps can make a big difference to your safety and ultimate survival in the hospital.

1 “A new, evidence-based estimate of patient harms associated with hospital care” by John T. James, PhD., Journal of Patient Safety, September 2013 http://journals.lww.com/journalpatientsafety/Fulltext/2013/09000/A_New,_Evidence_based_Estimate_of_Patient_Harms.2.aspx

2”How many die from medical mistakes in U. S. Hospitals?” by Marshall Allan and ProPublica, Scientific Journal, September 20, 2013 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-many-die-from-medical-mistakes-in-us-hospitals/

3 “How to Stop Hospitals from Killing Us” by Dr. Marty Makary, Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2012 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390444620104578008263334441352?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10000872396390444620104578008263334441352.html

4Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2012 article