A just-released report from my office shows that medical care is falling short for too many hospitalized Medicare patients. A decade after an Institute of Medicine study placed preventable medical errors among the leading causes of death in the United States, our latest study found that a disturbing number of hospitalized patients still endure harmful consequences from medical care, 44% of them preventable. These instances, which the report calls "adverse events," include infections, surgical complications and medication errors.
Such occurrences are not always preventable, particularly since many Medicare patients are elderly and have complicated health problems. But enough patient harm is avoidable to make a strong case for action.
Physicians determined that about one in seven patients (13.5%) experienced at least one serious instance of harm from medical care that prolonged their hospital stay, caused permanent harm, required life-sustaining intervention, or contributed to their deaths. Projected to the entire Medicare population, this rate means an estimated 134,000 hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries experienced harm from medical care in one month, with the event contributing to death for 1.5%, or approximately 15,000 patients.
Strikingly, medication errors factored in more than half the patient fatalities in our sample, including use of the wrong drug, giving the wrong dosage, or inadequately treating known side effects. Such events were commonly caused by hospital staff diagnosing patients incorrectly or failing to closely monitor their conditions.