Protecting Yourself from the Thousand-a-Day Toll of Medical Error

Scary new numbers have been issued on how many patients die from medical malpractice and medical errors in hospitals.

Despite incremental improvements in addressing medical errors, a recent comprehensive analysis published in the Journal of Patient Safety estimated that 440,000 people die every year as victims of medical errors they experienced as hospital patients. That’s more than 1,000 every day.


We mentioned the study last month in our blog, “Another If/Then Review of Hospital Safety Ratings.” Its author, John James, is founder of Patient Safety America, whose newsletter is a sobering reminder of just how vigilant medical consumers must be to remain safe.

Luckily, a Consumer Reports examination of the James study, and how it can be applied, is a big boost in safety self-help. It, too, was mentioned in last month’s blog.

The large number of patients James identified had suffered mistakes including getting the wrong drugs, developing infections from careless hospital staff hygiene and failing to receive tests or treatments they should have.

“Four-hundred-forty-thousand is a frightening figure,” James said to Consumer Reports. It represents more than 1,000 deaths per day, and more than half of the deaths each year in U.S. hospitals. “And it makes patient harm in hospitals the nation’s third-leading cause of death, trailing only heart disease and cancer,” James said.

The number is an estimate because a lot of what goes on in the hospital isn’t recorded and because death can result from several factors, and teasing out the underlying medical cause from the screw-up is difficult and inexact.

Still the figures aren’t really surprising, given the wealth of information about medical error since the Institute of Medicine said as many as 98,000 hospital patients per year die from medical errors 15 years ago. We’ve written often about government efforts to track problems experienced by Medicare patients (see our blog, “Hospitals Show Small Improvement in Patient Safety”), but James analyzed the results of four key hospital safety studies published between 2008 and 2011 that dug a little deeper, estimating the number of deaths caused by errors that go unrecorded or result from missed diagnoses.

“The truth is that whether it’s 100,000 or 200,000 or 400,000 deaths a year is almost immaterial,” he told Consumer Reports. “What matters is that too many people are dying in hospitals because of medical mistakes, not enough is being done to stop it and patients need more information.”

Consumer Reports offers several ways to get it. Its Hospital Safety Score, as our blog last month noted, includes information for 2,591 hospitals in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It has new information about hospital mortality rates. The mortality figures use two measures, hospital patients admitted with medical conditions (heart attack, for example), and surgical events.

For the medical problem patients, the figures reflect the chances that a patient who has had a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart failure or pneumonia will die within 30 days of entering the hospital. Only 35 hospitals nationwide earned a top rating in the measure, and 66 hospitals got the lowest rating.

“The differences between high-scoring hospitals and low-scoring ones can be a matter of life and death,” according to John Santa, M.D., medical director of Consumer Reports Health. For example, pneumonia patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles (top rated in this category, with a 7% chance of dying within 30 days) compared favorably with similar patients at Delano Regional Medical Center in Central California – 22% chance of death. Pneumonia patients in top-scoring hospitals are at least 40% less likely to die within 30 days of admission than similar patients in low-scoring hospitals.

More hospitals rated better for surgical patients (those with serious but treatable complications such as blood clots) who died in the hospital – 173 got a top rating, and 228 hospitals got the lowest rating. But here, too, the differences between high- and low-scoring hospitals were striking: For every 1,000 patients who develop serious complications in a top hospital, 87 or fewer die versus 132 in a low-rated hospital. Patients in top-rated hospitals are at least 34% less likely to die than similar patients in low-rated hospitals.

Seven hospitals in the country earned a top rating in both medical mortality and surgical mortality:

  • NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City
  • Olympia Medical Center, Los Angeles
  • Presence Saint Joseph Hospital, Chicago
  • Providence Hospital, Southfield, Mich.
  • South Pointe Hospital, Warrensville Heights, Ohio
  • St. Alexius Medical Center, Hoffman Estates, Ill.
  • UPMC McKeesport, McKeesport, Penn.

Three hospitals got the lowest score in both measures:

  • Conway Regional Medical Center, Conway, Ark.
  • Highland Hospital of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.
  • Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital, Somerset, Ky.

The reasons some hospitals routinely offer safer care than others have to do with communication and accountability.

You can look up how hospitals are rated in your area here.

To learn how to survive during and thrive after a hospital stay, link to Consumer Reports’ hospital survival guide.

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