Fewer hospital mistakes mean 50,000 lives, $12 billion saved

A student gets a flu shot from school nurse
A student gets a flu shot from school nurse MCT

Improved patient safety and fewer mistakes at U.S. hospitals saved the lives of roughly 50,000 people from 2011 to 2013, the Obama administration reported Tuesday.

Incidents of hospital-induced harm – such as adverse drug events, infections, falls and bedsores – fell by 17 percent, or an estimated 1.3 million episodes, from 2010.

The improvements, driven by a number of public and private initiatives, saved an estimated $12 billion in health care spending, according to a new government report that found dramatic progress in the fight to curb preventable medical injuries at U.S. hospitals.

Of the estimated 50,000 fewer deaths, a decline in bedsores, or pressure ulcers, helped save roughly 20,300 lives. A drop in adverse drug events – such as overdoses or administering the wrong medication – saved another 11,500 lives.

Fewer falls by hospitalized patients saved 6,400 lives, the study found.

In a speech Tuesday in Baltimore, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said the new HHS estimates represented “historic progress on health care quality.”

“A 17 percent reduction in hospital-acquired conditions is a big deal, but it’s only a start,” Burwell said. “No American should ever lose his or her life, or spend the holidays in the hospital, because of a condition that could have been prevented.”

Analysts from HHS looked at 18,000 to 33,000 medical records for each of the three years covered by the study. They estimate that nearly 10 percent of hospitalized patients in the U.S. experienced one or more of the numerous hospital-acquired conditions they were looking for.

“That rate is still too high,” the report found.

Hospital-induced harm to patients has been a black cloud over the U.S. health care system for decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 million people each year suffer hospital-acquired infections, such as bloodstream and urinary tract infections from catheters.

In 2010, the government estimated that 27 percent of hospitalized Medicare patients sustained injuries associated with their care. Half of these patients had one or more episodes that either prolonged their hospital stays, caused permanent harm, required lifesaving interventions or resulted in death, HHS investigators found. About half the incidents were preventable.

The Institute of Medicine, a nongovernmental, nonprofit group under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated in 1999 that 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year from medical problems that could have been averted.

But a report published last year in the Journal of Patient Safety said the actual number of deaths is much larger. It estimated that 210,000 to 440,000 hospital patients experience preventable medical episodes each year that contribute to their deaths.

Those numbers would put medical errors behind only heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to CDC data. The findings helped spur HHS, health care providers and a variety of public-private efforts to identify and use best practices that reduce hospital-acquired medical conditions.

From 2008 to 2012, bloodstream infections associated with central line catheters dropped 44 percent, while some surgical site infections dropped as much as 20 percent, according to the CDC.

In 2011 and 2012, preventable medical episodes associated with hospital care fell 9 percent, HHS reported last May. This saved roughly $4 billion in health spending, prevented nearly 15,000 deaths and averted 560,000 patient injuries.

Today’s results continue that progress. In 2013 alone, HHS estimates, 800,000 fewer incidents of harm occurred in hospitals, saving 35,000 patient lives and about $8 billion in medical spending.

“Never before have we been able to bring so many hospitals, clinicians and experts together to share in a common goal: improving patient care,” said Rich Umbdenstock, the president and CEO of the American Hospital Association. “We have built an ‘infrastructure of improvement’ that will aid hospitals and the health care field for years to come and has spurred the results you see today.”

Affordable Care Act provisions that provide incentives for hospitals to cut readmissions among Medicare patients also appear to be working. Readmission rates for Medicare beneficiaries fell 8 percent from January 2012 to December 2013, resulting in 150,000 fewer hospitalizations, according to HHS.