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Medical Injuries Wreak Havoc Beyond Patients' Pain And Suffering

Oct 7, 2003 | USA TODAY

Medical injuries in U.S. hospitals that are largely preventable add up to a substantial burden in terms of unnecessary deaths and additional days spent in the hospital, a study out Wednesday says.

More than 32,000 Americans each year die as a result of such errors, the study says. But even people who survive pay a price: They often have to pick up some fraction of the cost of the extra-long hospital stay, says study author Chunliu Zhan of the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine said up to 98,000 Americans die every year from errors that occur in hospitals, doctor's offices, outpatient clinics and elsewhere. The new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, takes a detailed look at the medical mistakes that happen just in hospitals.

The researchers pored over records from 994 hospitals in 28 states, a sample that represented about 20% of the nation's hospitals. The team focused on 18 specific injuries that can be caused by human error and added up the burden, including extra hospital time and added costs.

Nationwide, the team estimates such injuries result in about 2.4 million extra days in the hospital and $9.3 billion in extra charges for longer stays and more care.

The report uncovered a number of medical injuries, such as:

Potentially deadly infections of the bloodstream that can crop up after surgery, the No. 1 problem the researchers found. The team found that people who got such infections had a 22% higher risk of dying. Survivors had to stay an extra 11 days and had a hospital bill that was $58,000 higher than people who didn't get an infection.

Reopening of a wound after surgery, often because of an infection. That injury means patients often spend 10 extra days in the hospital and have hospital charges that are $40,000 higher.

Leaving a medical instrument or sponge in a patient's body, a mistake that rarely kills but often leads to two extra hospital days and $13,000 in additional charges.

Zhan says the surgical infections often occur when staff members don't wash hands or instruments properly.

But Nancy Foster of the American Hospital Association says that in many cases infections occur even though staff members have followed state-of-the-art infection control. The bugs that cause these infections are constantly changing to evade even the strictest control measures.

Many of the injuries in this report can be chalked up to crisis conditions in which doctors and nurses must work at lightning speeds to save a patient's life, the hospital association's Rick Wade adds.

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