Do you know how many patients are harmed in hospitals each year due to preventable medical errors? You would think these critical metrics would be painstakingly reported by hospitals on each given procedure, wouldn’t you?
Unfortunately, they are not. If accurate information is available, it has yet to be found.
To most Americans, preventable medical errors1 in our hospitals is largely an unknown problem. The United States does not have a bona fide national strategy to confront preventable adverse events (PAEs). Nor do we have an independent central coordination group, similar to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to align all of the various organizations involved in patient safety for reporting and investigative purposes. There is a great deal of talk and frenetic activity generated around PAEs, but if progress is being made, it appears to be glacial. Voluntary reporting of patient harm caused by PAEs is not widely practiced and is, in large part, not shared with the public. When it comes to the number of patients seriously or fatally harmed, the best that our country can muster are estimates – national estimates.
But what about estimates for just Iowa and its six neighboring states?
Again, we know very little about the number of PAEs for each state. In fact, even the harmed patient is often unaware that a PAE happened while being hospitalized. This lack of knowledge is the purpose for Silently Harmed, a family of white papers released today by Heartland Health Research Institute (HHRI). In addition to estimating the number of patients seriously and fatally harmed in Iowa, Silently Harmed also provides estimates for the six other midwestern states that border Iowa: Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
It is fair to say that national estimates on PAEs are imprecise. In fact, estimates vary widely from many sources, causing a great deal of consternation for health public officials, patient safety advocates, healthcare providers, and many other stakeholders. Below is a brief outline of national estimates that we used for each of the seven states. Future blogs will address the results found in each of them.
Estimated Patients SERIOUSLY Harmed in U.S. Due to PAEs
Silently Harmed offers a range of national estimates on patients seriously harmed in our hospitals due to PAEs. As described in Silently Harmed, the low-end estimate is that 6.6 million patients are harmed, with a high-end estimate of 11.5 million patients. Using the mid-range annual estimate of 8.7 million harmed patients, this number is equivalent to the population of New York City. As summarized below, every four seconds, one patient is harmed in the U.S. due to a preventable mistake, meaning the mistake could have been avoided. During the 25-minute average commute time to work in this country, 417 patients are harmed, or about one in every four hospital admissions.
Thankfully, we do know the annual number of hospital admissions for each state. Based on that metric, we have calculated estimates for hospital patients seriously harmed in each of the seven midwestern states. The estimates for the U.S. do not include outpatient settings, such as doctors’ offices, nursing homes, outpatient surgeries, etc. Because of this, one might correctly argue that this is a conservative estimate. Care-quality also varies wildly in different parts of our country, so using a national estimate will not include quality-adjusted care for Iowa or any other Heartland state. Without having accurate data on quality outcomes that can impact patient safety for each state, we avoided applying any quality metrics.
Estimated Patients FATALLY Harmed in U.S. Due to PAEs
What are the national estimates of patients who were fatally harmed by mistakes within U.S. hospitals? You guessed it, these estimates also vary widely. Silently Harmed uses the often-cited estimate of 98,000 lives from the Institute of Medicine’s ‘To Err is Human’ report from 1999. This number has now proven to be the low-end estimate, while 440,000 fatalities from the Journal of Patient Safety serves as the high-end estimate. Finally, assuming a mid-range estimate of 250,000 annual fatalities is true, the graphic below provides the following averages regarding preventable fatalities in the U.S. due to PAEs.
Social and Economic Costs of PAEs in U.S.
The costs resulting from preventable adverse medical outcomes are staggering. In addition to costs that are a result of medical errors (beyond the cost of care that would otherwise occurred), the social costs alone are about a third of the total U.S. healthcare spending. Social cost is determined by the “value of a statistical life,” a term used by economists. This value is typically used by federal regulatory agencies when making policy decisions about trade-offs people are willing to make regarding additional wages in riskier jobs. Depending on inpatient injuries and fatalities due to PAEs, social costs can range in the U.S. from $93 billion to $2.4 trillion annually. The social and economic implications to PAEs are, to put it mildly, massive.
Each ‘Silently Harmed’ white paper is available for download, at NO CHARGE. To learn more about estimations for a particular ‘Heartland’ state, you may start here.
1 According to the Institute of Medicine, a medical error is a preventable adverse effect of care. Examples include an inaccurate or incomplete diagnosis or treatment of a disease, injury, infection, or any other ailment.
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