Preventable Medical Errors Still Kill Thousands, Cost Billions as Employers Foot Bill

By Staff Report

May. 20, 2009

Despite a landmark report a decade ago detailing the deadly nature of the U.S. health system, a consumer group said Tuesday, May 19, that little has been done to prevent the errors that still kill as many as 100,000 patients each year—a number that the group said is a conservative estimate.

Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, published what it called a “review of the scant evidence” of the health system’s efforts to reduce preventable errors that cost the country $17 billion to $29 billion annually, a cost borne by the employers that pay for shoddy care.

The group concluded that it was impossible to gauge what, if any, progress had been made since the Institute of Medicine released its 1999 report “To Err Is Human.” Efforts to reform the system are “few and fragmented” with the exception of a few state laws requiring hospitals to provide information.

“In this report we give the country a failing grade on progress on select recommendations we believe necessary to create a health care system free of preventable medical harm,” the group said.

The report follows a similar analysis by the Leapfrog Group, an employer-sponsored organization working toward reducing medical errors. In a report last month, the group said a majority of hospitals failed to meet quality standards that reduce errors.

For example, 75 percent of hospitals do not fully meet the standards for 13 evidence-based safety practices, ranging from hand-washing to competency of the nursing staff, the Leapfrog Group said.

At the time, the 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine sent shockwaves through the medical establishment. The IOM, one of the National Academies of Sciences that advise U.S. policymakers, concluded that it would be “irresponsible to expect anything less than a 50 percent reduction in errors over five years.”

The report was followed by a task force appointed by President Bill Clinton, a $50 million allocation to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and several federal bills. Yet today, Congress has yet to pass a bill requiring hospitals to report medical errors.

In its report Tuesday, Consumers Union said the country has failed to:

● Reduce medication errors because hospitals have not widely adopted computerized prescribing and dispensing systems; the FDA has not done enough to help consumers and health practitioners avoid medication errors that stem from similar-sounding drug names and labels.

● Establish a national system suitable for reporting and tracking medical errors.

● Empower the Agency for Health Research and Quality to track national progress on patient safety.

● Raise professional standards and accountability of doctors, nurses and hospitals that commit preventable and widespread medical errors.

The 10-year anniversary of the IOM report comes amid the first concrete efforts to overhaul the health care system led by the Obama administration, which set aside billions of dollars in the federal budget for that task.

Additionally, the administration earmarked $19 billion in the economic stimulus bill to create a health information technology infrastructure that it says will reduce medication prescribing errors and other health system inefficiencies.

—Jeremy Smerd

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