How Many Patients Deaths Are Actually Connected to Medical Malpractice?

The National Patient Safety Foundation declared last week to be Patient Safety Awareness Week. The organization used the occasion to raise community awareness on issues of concern to medical patients. Obviously, our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers understand that virtually everyone would agree that avoiding preventable errors at hospitals and medical centers should be avoided. However, there remains a surprisingly lack of urgency in addressing the problem.

Both a symptom and a cause of this laissez faire attitude is the lack of proper counting of the number of Americans of who die because of preventable medical malpractice. The truth is that we do not fully know the overall scope of medical errors in all contexts. Because inadequate attention has been focused on the issue, resources have not been invested into sufficient tracking of the problem. As a result, less public attention is focused on the overall epidemic. This is a cyclical problem that, in the end, leads to worse patient care for all of us.

A post last week from the Health Affairs Blog emphasized this lack of proper tracking of deaths from medical errors. The post cleverly explores how many of the often used figures seeking to quantify the scope of these errors are actually insufficient.

For example, the Illinois medical malpractice attorneys at our firm have frequently referred to the landmark Institute of Medicine study-To Err is Human-which found that upwards of 98,000 patients die every year from preventable errors and more than one million are injured. However, though it may be hard for some to imagine, these figure actually underestimate the problem. That is because the figure does not account for certain types of errors, like central-line associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) in outpatient clinics. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study found that these infections arise in one out of thirty five consultations-with a fatality rate of 25%. In other words, the Institute of Medicine figures fail to count thousands of preventable deaths.

A more recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that 90,000 patients die each year as a result of preventable medical harm in hospital. This effort was a bit more all-encompassing in the types of harm measured-like hospital acquired infections. However, this HHS study only referred to problems in hospitals. Millions of Americans receive treatment (and are harmed) in different settings and so this effort similarly underestimates the trust cost of the problem. Regardless, this HHS study is an important one, because for the first time it included a rigorous method to actually measure not all of these hospital-acquired infections but only those that were actually preventable. In other words, this 90,000 figure is not some number plucked out of the sky based only on counting up infections-it systematically accounts only for those infections which should not have occurred had care standards been met.

At the end of the day, according to this post, there is simply no current measurement of the total amount of preventable harm caused by medical errors in all medical settings. As a result, it is unlikely that the true scope of the problem will be displayed in high-profile terms that might catch the public attention and actually force changes to improve care.

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