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New report on medical errors is wake-up call; White House should focus on improving patient safety to reduce medical costs

David Arkush, Public Citizen

More than a decade ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) alerted the nation to a crisis of medical errors in hospitals. Today, we learn that nothing has changed and that patients are suffering needless injuries and deaths from preventable medical mistakes. The Inspector General’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has reconfirmed what has been reported repeatedly over the years: that the country is in a patient safety crisis, and that medical professionals, lawmakers and regulators must do significantly more to avert it.

The IOM’s 1999 landmark report, “To Err is Human,” dropped the first bombshell, reporting that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die in hospitals each year from medical mistakes, costing an estimated $17 billion to $29 billion annually. HHS’ new finding that medical mistakes kill 15,000 Medicare patients a month equates to 180,000 Medicare deaths per year – more than the IOM’s estimate, which attempted to cover all patients in the United States. That means that the annual death toll in this country caused by mistakes in hospitals is well over 250,000 deaths a year! But perhaps the most startling finding by HHS is that a significant number of patients suffered injuries or died needlessly, as 44 percent of the medical errors were preventable.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to the patient safety emergency facing us as the lives and national health care costs rack up on a daily basis. Given that 1.6 million Medicare patients suffer injuries every year from medical mistakes with an annual taxpayer price tag of at least $4.4 billion, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform should consider ways to reduce the federal budget deficit by preventing medical errors.

The president’s deficit commission should focus on patient safety rather than the dangerous “tort reform” proposals offered last week by its co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Making health care safer would be a far more effective and just means of saving money than curtailing the rights of malpractice victims or insulating doctors from accountability for wrongdoing. Shielding doctors from liability for their errors only exacerbates the patient safety crisis and promotes higher health care costs. Malpractice payments are at the lowest they have ever been since they were first recorded in 1990, which means that despite the epidemic of medical errors, fewer victims are receiving compensation for their injuries and fewer medical providers are being held accountable for the harm they cause. In fact, there are nearly 10 times as many injuries caused by medical negligence as there are malpractice claims.

The only workable solution to preventing unnecessary deaths and injuries is to combine much more patient-protective hospital protocols with much better scrutiny by hospitals of physicians and other health care providers, and to appropriately discipline those whose performance results in preventable patient harm.

Congress and the federal agencies should treat the HHS report as a wake-up call. Instead of flirting with ways to eliminate patients’ legal rights, they must save costs and lives by taking affirmative steps to help patients.

David Arkush is director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Public Citizen’s 2009 report on how to save 85,000 lives and $35 billion in health care delivery:

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