Some of the leading causes of death in this country are preventable, but none as much as the third: Fatal medical errors. The figures are sobering:

  • The US Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging recently held hearings in response to a study by the Journal of Patient Safety that estimated the annual number of fatalities due to medical errors at 440,000 – well over 1,000 people a day.

That is equal to three 747 jumbo jets crashing every week. Add to that the 10,000 people who suffer non-fatal medical errors and misdiagnoses, and the scale of the problem begins to come into focus. This epidemic is worsened by the public’s unawareness of it. About half of the respondents of the Journal ‘s study believed the annual death total for medical errors was 5,000 or less – which is 80 times, or 8000%, lower than the actual figure. The Subcommittee, chaired by Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, also heard testimony about the financial impact of medical errors.

  • The annual cost of preventable medical errors is estimated at $17 billion per year;
  • If missed work days are included, the cost rises to $1 trillion, according to the Journal of Health Care Finance.

To make matters worse, patients are forced to pay for medical mistakes, and for the care required to fix them – if fixing them is even possible. Many people go bankrupt trying to keep up with hospital bills loaded with charges for botched surgeries and other mistakes. Fortunately, the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Service (CMS) is leading the way by issuing a regulation that bars payment for certain mistakes deemed “Never Events” – events that should never happen, like amputating the wrong limb or performing the wrong surgery on a patient. The same regulation prohibits medical providers from transferring the charges for eight of the most common preventable injuries to the patient:

  1. Objects left in surgery
  2. Air embolism
  3. Blood incompatibility
  4. Catheter-associated urinary tract infections
  5. Pressure ulcers
  6. Vascular catheter-associated infection
  7. Surgical site infection
  8. Hospital-acquired injuries, including fractures, dislocations, intracranial injury, crushing injury, and burns.

Later in the Senate hearing, experts urged Congress to mandate that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) track and report statistics on medical errors. According to Dr. Ashish Jha of Harvard Medical School, “The CDC has a phenomenal track record, this is a public health problem, and the CDC is our public health agency. They have a central role to play.” For now, the best way to combat medical errors is to be vigilant. If someone you love is in the hospital, the best thing you can do is to spend as much time there as possible, especially if they are unable to advocate for themselves. That way you can keep an eye on how they are being treated. You don’t have to be a doctor to know if there has been a sudden change for the worse, or a failure to respond to repeated presses of the call bell.  The presence of a friend or relative is especially important on weekends and holidays, when hospitals tend to be short-staffed, and the staff may be more focused on leaving the hospital than attending to its patients.

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