Medical Mistakes and Hospital Errors Continue to Cost Lives: Study

The findings of a new study suggest that efforts to decrease the number of medical mistakes in U.S. hospitals have generally failed, as few medical facilities have moved to electronic records and even simple measures, such as regular hand washing, are not being consistently enforced. 

In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers looked at the practices of 10 North Carolina hospitals from 2002 through 2007. They found little reduction of medical errors over the period examined, as those facilities struggled to put measures in place that would address problems that cause tens of thousands of deaths each year that are easily preventable.

Researchers performed 2,341 record reviews and found 588 incidents of hospital-caused harms to patients, including hospital-acquired infections, prescription mistakes, medical procedure errors, misdiagnoses and hospital falls.

While 85% of those errors were treatable and did no lasting harm, researchers found that 2.4% contributed or caused the death of a patient and 8.5% resulted in life-threatening injury. Out of the total number of medical errors found, 63% were categorized as preventable.

The researchers found that from 2002 to 2007, the rate of medical errors dropped about 1% in the 10 North Carolina hospitals reviewed. The researchers determined that number was statistically insignificant.

While the research team from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston admitted that the scale of the study was limited and that North Carolina may be atypical for the U.S. medical community, they selected the state due to its progressive and aggressive approach toward addressing medical errors. They also pointed to a number of areas where hospitals across the country should be improving, but found they have been slow to put into place proven life-saving measures.

For example, only 1.5% of hospitals in the U.S. have implemented comprehensive electronic medical record systems and only 9.1% have even the most basic electronic records system in place. They also found that physicians-in-training and nurses are constantly overworked to dangerous levels and that many hospitals are still failing to successfully enforce hand washing and other simple preventative steps.

"Since North Carolina has been a leader in efforts to improve safety, a lack of improvement in this state suggests that further improvement is also needed at the national level," the researchers concluded. The researchers added that numerous studies have shown prevention measures such as electronic records and hand-washing to be successful, however it appears to be the hospitals themselves which are failing to put proven practices into place on most likely a national scale.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) calculated that medical malpractice and mistakes caused 98,000 deaths per year and 1 million injuries.

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