Medical Errors More Common Than Previously Thought

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a study noting that up to 98,000 people died each year from medical mistakes. The IOM also estimated that an additional one million people were injured as a result of these errors, putting the total cost of these mistakes anywhere between $17 billion and $29 billion annually. The purpose of the study was to bring attention to the prevalence of medical mistakes and ultimately make hospitals safer.

A new study, however, indicates that medical errors may be up to 10 times worse than previously believed. According to Dr. David Classen and researchers at the University of Utah, medical errors may occur in as many as one-third of all hospital admissions.

Medication errors, procedural mistakes and problems related to hospital-acquired infections were the most common issues noted in the study, though surgical errors often resulted in the most severe injuries.

New Tool Used to Track Mistakes

The study, published in the April issue of Health Affairs, used a new tool to track the incidence of medical mistakes. The Institute for Healthcare Improvements' Global Trigger Tool uses nurses trained to look for certain "triggers" in medical charts including abnormal labs or stop-medication orders, according to a WebMD report on the study. The nurses then follow up with the doctor to determine if there were any adverse effects to the patient.

The study reviewed nearly 800 medical records and compared them using the Global Trigger Tool and the traditional U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) indicators. A review of the study by the National Institutes of Health found that using the AHRQ criteria, 35 errors were found, compared to 354 using the Global Trigger Tool.

Researchers hope the Global Trigger Tool will offer a better estimate of the frequency of medical mistakes.

Preventing Mistakes

A hospital in New York took steps to change the culture of practicing medicine and, as a result, made the practice safer for patients.

According to a report in Crain's New York, New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell initiated a comprehensive obstetrics safety program to focus on preventing "sentinel events" or avoidable deaths and serious injuries. The hospital reduced its medical malpractice payouts from $28 million from 2003 to 2006 down to $2.6 million a year from 2007 to 2009.

The changes included not only adding staff, but updating protocols and equipment used to track patients and their progress. While some of these changes were expensive, the savings from medical malpractice payments more than make up for the costs.

Getting Help

Despite efforts of doctors and hospitals to monitor and prevent injuries and medical mistakes, the University of Utah study demonstrates that these injuries and deaths still occur at an alarming rate. If you have been injured or lost a family member as a result of a doctor's negligence or any other act of malpractice, it is important to discuss your situation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney.