In 1999, the Institute of Medicine reported a stunning figure: Each year, up to 98,000 people were dying in U.S. hospitals. These people were not dying from the illness that brought them to a hospital, but from medical mistakes which happened during treatment there.
Over the years, there have been signs the number may be greater. One came in 2010, when the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services reported that hospital mistakes contributed to the deaths of 180,000 Medicare patients in just one year.
Now, a new study published in the Journal of Patient Safety reports between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death. These harms may include patients getting the wrong medicine, surgical errors, or infections resulting when safety procedures are not followed. That makes medical malpractice the third leading cause of deaths in the U.S., following heart disease and cancer.
The new study, conducted by Patient Safety America of Texas, took data from four studies involving 4,200 patients between 2002 and 2008. The cases were screened for symptoms such as infection and injury which may be tied to error. A doctor reviewed the cases which passed initial screening.
Researchers found 21 percent of the patients suffered adverse events or preventable harm. Between 1 and 2 percent suffered death as a result of medical mistakes. Patient Safety America combined the findings and extrapolated across 34 million hospitalizations in 2007 to conclude the baseline number was 210,000.
“Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients that would empower them…,” writes author John T. James, Ph.D of Patient Safety America. James is the chief toxicologist at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He authored a book, called “A Sea of Broken Hearts,” about the search for answers after his son died following medical treatment by hospital cardiologists.
Patient Safety Tips
When you go into the hospital, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself. Some steps can be taken beforehand.
1) Research Your Doctor. You can search for all your physicians, including any surgeons who are going to treat you, on the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine website. Type in your physician’s name and find out if they have paid any medical malpractice payments or faced board discipline actions in recent years.
2) Research Your Hospital. Research the hospital as well. Even if you are not scheduled for a hospital procedure, you can research hospitals periodically by talking to your primary care doctor and checking hospital rating websites, such as Medicare Hospital Compare, which offer a wide range of data, including the average time patients wait for various treatments.
3) Bring a Patient Advocate. Choose someone such as your spouse or another relative to stay with you at the hospital. Have them write down what the doctor says, check the medication you are being given at what time and question the doctor and nurses when something looks wrong.
4) Obtain Your Medical Records. Remember you have a right to obtain your medical records under Massachusetts law and should do so if you believe you may have been the victim of a medical error. Read our article on this topic.
A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care, Pro Publica.
About Breakstone, White & Gluck
The Boston and Cambridge medical malpractice lawyers at Breakstone, White & Gluck have over 100 years combined experience in handling cases involving medical errors and surgical malpractice. If you have been injured, learn your rights. For a free legal consultation, contact us at 800-379-1244 or 617-723-7676 or use our contact form.