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Apr 22 2004

200,000 preventable medical errors per year?

Published by at 11:20 am under patient safety

I just read an article in the Wall St. Journal “Report Card to Rank Hospitals on Safety”

“The incidence of medical errors is higher than some patients might think. The Institute of Medicine reported in 2000 that medical errors cause as many as 98,000 deaths annually, but some safety experts now say the report actually understates the problem. Charles Denham, a physician and founder of the nonprofit Texas Medical Institute of Technology, which designed the new survey, says a more realistic number may be as high as 200,000 deaths per year.”

The Institute of Medicine is part of the National Academy of Science; a fairly respectable organization. There is a lot of controversy over these numbers; I’ve asked former Surgeon Generals and IOM members about this, and they basically don’t really know. It seems the range is between 20,000 and 200,000 deaths per year.

Yet even the low end of the IOM study, 44,000, puts deaths due to preventable medical errors on a par with automobile deaths. This equates to the carnage of a 9/11 every month, that we are systematically inflicting on ourselves.


If you go to your local hospital, you will likely find that they have a computing system which is able to track every tissue box given to every patient. They will be able to get those transactions on the patient’s bill with great precision…perhaps charging $15 for a $.50 box of tissues. They have been doing this for years.

But if you ask them if they have a computer system which can track prescription orders, and perform drug interaction checking, (which could save up to 7,000 lives per year nationwide) they will likely speak in the future tense of cost and complexity concerns, problems with recent mergers, and a whole host of excuses why they haven’t been able to use computers to improve patient safety. (What they are not likely to tell you is that a significant proportion of their revenues is based on re-admissions of patients who have suffered drug interactions)

We are asking hospitals to spend money on information systems which will reduce their revenues. This is the core of the problem, not lack of regulations.

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