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There's Much Work to Be Done: 8 Medical Errors Statistics to Know

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Preventing medical errors must be a high priority for any healthcare provider. They are avoidable, and yet every year, medical errors greatly harm and kill patients nationwide. We know these claims to be the true because the medical errors statistics available to back them up.

Here are eight medical errors statistics that support the need for greater efforts and focus on reducing these dangerous mistakes.

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1. 250,000-440,000

This is the estimated number of annual deaths from medical errors. A widely cited 2016 Johns Hopkins study published in The BMJ calculated that more than 250,000 U.S. deaths annually are due to medical error. This figure would make medical errors the cause of 10% of all U.S. deaths and the third leading cause of death in the United States, trailing only heart disease and chronic respiratory disease 

The researchers noted, in a news release, that most errors "represent systemic problems, including poorly coordinated care, fragmented insurance networks, the absence or underuse of safety nets, and other protocols, in addition to unwarranted variation in physician practice patterns that lack accountability."

The 250,000 deaths figure is significantly higher than the 98,000 cited in the Institute of Medicine's 1999 report "To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System" and yet far below the 440,000 deaths cited in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Patient Safety.

2. 21%

A 2017 national survey released by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement/National Patient Safety Foundation Lucian Leape Institute and NORC at the University of Chicago found that this percentage of American adults report having personally experienced a medical error.

Furthermore, the study found that 31% of Americans reported that someone else whose care they were closely involved with experienced an error.

3. $17.1 billion

If you're thinking that this is a lot of money, I agree. It's also the estimated annual cost of measurable medical errors that harmed patients in 2008, according to research published in Health Affairs. The researchers note that "Pressure ulcers were the most common measurable medical error, followed by postoperative infections and by post laminectomy syndrome, a condition characterized by persistent pain following back surgery. A total of 10 types of errors account for more than two-thirds of the total cost of errors…."

Some estimates place the annual cost figure as high as $29 billion.

4. One in seven

This is the number of Medicare patients in hospitals who experience a medical error. The statistic was cited in a column written by now former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson. He noted that physicians determined that these patients 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."

When projected to the entire Medicare population at the time the column was written (2010), this rate means an estimated 134,000 hospitalized Medicare beneficiaries experienced harm from medical care in a single month, with the event contributing to death for approximately 15,000 patients.

5. About one in 10

A national survey of nearly 6,700 American doctors published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings provides us with this statistic. It represents the number of doctors who reported that they had made a major medical error in the three months prior to the survey.

Furthermore, "We found that physicians with burnout had more than twice the odds of self-reported medical error, after adjusting for specialty, work hours, fatigue and work unit safety rating," said Daniel Tawfik, MD, an instructor in pediatric critical care medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and lead author, in a news release. "We also found that low safety grades in work units were associated with three to four times the odds of medical error."

6. Nearly 4,100

This is the estimated number of "never event" mistakes made by surgeons every year, according to a 2013 study published in Surgery. A list of never events was developed in 2002 and now consists of 29 "serious reportable events," according to a Patient Safety Primer report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

An article from The Joint Commission notes that the five most common reported, identifiable never events, described by the accreditation organization as "sentinel events," during the first half of 2018 were falls, unintended retention of a foreign body, wrong-site surgery, suicide, and delay in treatment.

7. 33,000-plus

A study by the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality at Johns Hopkins found that more than 33,000 lives could be saved if all hospitals performed at the level of those hospitals which have received an "A" grade from the Leapfrog Group.

8. 49-53%

This is the percentage of medical errors that involve newly graduated registered nurses with less than a year of experience in patient care, according to an article published in NursingThe article notes, "Patient falls, medication errors, and failure-to-rescue incidents are among the most commonly documented errors involving new nurses."

Focus Less on the Numbers, More on Their Implications

Some of the figures cited in this statistics roundup have been debated. But what should not be debated is their implication and the importance of organizations striving to reduce the number of preventable medical errors. After all, if a medical error is preventable, it should be prevented.

A strong case can be made that efforts must be made to get this number down to zero. And this may be the most significant figure included in this story.

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