Preventable harm in the hospital—better or worse?

The question of whether injuries and deaths by preventable errors exist in hospitals has been a source of much debate in the healthcare industry. It is difficult to know exactly how many people are injured or die due to accidents in hospitals. Each time the issue has been studied, the numbers get worse. But whether this is a matter of treatment getting worse or the studies getting more precise is unclear.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published a report titled "To Err is Human." That report found that up to 98,000 people per year are killed by mistakes in treatment during hospital stays. In 2010, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that errors caused the deaths of 180,000 Medicare patients in a given year. Now, a study in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Patient Safety says that this number should be even higher: between 210,000 and 440,000 patients per year. If true, this would make hospital errors the number three cause of death in the U.S.

The numbers for all errors, including non-fatal ones, can be equally disheartening. In 2010, HHS found that up to one in seven hospitalized patients face some kind of error in treatment. In 2012, a nonprofit patient advocacy group graded hospitals across the country based on things like cleanliness, adherence to safe practices and side-effects such as bed sores and infections. Of the 11 hospitals reviewed in Rhode Island, 55 percent received B grades and 45 percent received Cs.

Of that one-in-seven figure, almost a third of the issues were related to prescription drugs. One of the ways to reduce such mistakes (and this was one of the criteria used by the nonprofit in its grades) is for doctors to enter prescriptions via computer rather than by hand. Stereotypes about doctors' handwriting aside, this has a real effect: a study in early 2012 found that electronic prescription-writing could reduce medication errors by up to 60 percent. Beyond handwriting, the software can also identify dosing errors and harmful interactions. Some of the remaining errors could be further reduced by improvements to the software, the study authors found.

Falls are another serious concern. As reported by the Connecticut Post, the World Health Organization found that falls of all kinds are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury across the globe. In Connecticut, for example, falls are the leading cause of death and injury in medical facilities. In one story reported by NPR in October 2013, a man was admitted to a hospital in Seattle for back pain. He was given Ambien to help him sleep during his overnight stay. Unfortunately, Ambien is known to cause sleepwalking. In this patient's case, he fell from bed and broke three more ribs, leading to a further two weeks in the hospital. The Mayo Clinic found that hospital patients given Ambien are four times more likely to suffer falls during their stays.

Although many healthcare providers are working to improve these numbers, preventable injury in a healthcare setting is still a big problem. If you or a loved one has suffered preventable harm while in treatment, you should consult an attorney experienced in medical malpractice law to learn what your rights and options may be.