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To err is still human - and still common - at U.S. hospitals

The American Heart Association reminds us regularly that the leading cause of death in this country is heart disease. The American Cancer Society reminds us regularly that cancer is the second most prevalent cause of death. Is there an organization out there that even tries to remind us that preventable medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the U.S.?

In spite of reports from the Institute of Medicine, studies in the Journal of Patient Safety and warnings from public health institutions, it seems Congress is the leader of this charge. A recent hearing sponsored by the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging brought patient safety experts together to discuss the best ways to address the problem.

Preventable medical errors became a particularly hot topic about 15 years ago with the publication of the Institute of Medicine's report, "To Err is Human." In the past few years, though, researchers have noted consistently that little progress has been made. According to the report, about 98,000 patients had been harmed or had died because of preventable errors; the Journal of Patient Safety says the number is closer to 400,000.

Participants in the hearing said that there are pockets of progress; some hospitals are doing better in some areas. The challenge, however, is to sustain those improvements and to extend that success to every other area of the hospital. Right now, as one patient safety advocate put it, "No one is getting it right consistently."

Turning the tide depends on a sea change in the health care system, the speakers said. Safety is more than another program; safety must be an integral part of hospital culture. That cannot happen until leadership -- from the government on down -- change the way things are done.

For example, the federal government should create a health care equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administration or National Transportation Safety Board. Too, hospitals need reliable data and metrics that are consistent from institution to institution; to make that data meaningful, they also need monitoring systems to analyze outcomes within each hospital and within the health care system at large.

Give hospitals the tools they need, the speakers said, and convince health care leaders and hospital management that safety should be a way of life. Then demand that they back their words with resources. Until that happens, human error will continue to outperform patient safety.

Source: Modern Healthcare, "Hospital patients no safer today than 15 years ago, Senate panel hears," Sabriya Rice, July 17, 2014

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