Medical Errors Continue to Harm Patients According to a New Study

Researchers have published in the New England Journal of Medicine the results of a study taken to determine whether efforts to reduce medical errors at national, regional, and local levels have translated into significant improvements in the overall safety of patients in hospitals.

In December 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported that medical errors cause up to 98,000 deaths and more than 1 million injuries each year in the United States. For more information concerning that study and others please refer to our medical adverse event studies page. In response to these findings, accreditation bodies, payers, non-profit organizations, governments, and hospitals launched major initiatives and invested considerable resources to improve patient safety.

The researchers sought to clarify whether these efforts in fact altered the rate of patient injury in hospital. They elected to study the rate of harm in North Carolina as it was a state that was likely to have improvement, since it had shown a high level of engagement in efforts to improve patient safety.

The study reviewed the records of 2341 admissions from study hospitals. A total of 588 harms were identified for a rate of 25.1 harms per 100 admissions. The harms suffered by patients were a consequence of procedures (186), medications (162), nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections (87), other therapies (59), diagnostic evaluations (7), and falls (5), and other causes.

The reviewers found that 63.1 % of the harms were preventable. The large majority of these were temporary but required either intervention or prolonged hospitalization. However of the identified preventable harms, 13 caused permanent harm, 35 were life-threatening, and 9 caused or contributed to a patient’s death. There was also no significant change over time in the rate of harms.

By our calculation almost 1% of hospital admissions will result in a condition of permanent harm or death that was preventable. This is an alarming statistic and underlines the need for focused efforts to reduce discrete harms, such as nosocomial infections and surgical complications, which have been shown can significantly improve safety. It also unfortunately means that patients will continue to need access to financial compensation for injuries that result from breaches in the standard of care or malpractice.

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