Patient safety has long been a top priority for healthcare providers. And it was an inescapable and overarching theme once again in 2012, a year that included an unprecedented outbreak of fungal meningitis, the launch of a government program to curb hospital readmissions and more dispiriting news regarding the nation's lack of progress on persistent racial, ethnic and geographic health disparities.
More than 500 patients in 19 states, according to the federal count in mid-December, had been infected with fungal meningitis after receiving injections of contaminated steroids, distributed by the now-closed New England Compounding Center.
The outbreak has prompted a call for better, less-fragmented oversight of compounding facilities, which customize medications based on patients' individual needs and physicians' specifications. Two Democratic representatives in the U.S. House have introduced a bill that would tighten federal standards of such facilities, and several states are pondering similar efforts.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine delivered its latest road map for safer, more patient-centered care, a 382-page report that emphasized the need for greater use of health information technology systems, improved teamwork and clinical process improvements. Authored by an 18-member expert panel, the report, Best Care at Lower Cost: The Path to Continuously Learning Health Care in America, also pushed for new payment models that reward quality and greater involvement by patients and families in care.
In fact, according to the IOM's report, eliminating unnecessary and ineffective healthcare services alone can help the industry achieve more than $340 billion in annual savings.
And there are plenty of opportunities for improvement.
Rates of Clostridium difficile infections have spiked to historically high levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even as providers have made progress at reducing rates of other types of healthcare-associated infections.
According to an August study from the Johns Hopkins University Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality, more than 40,000 intensive-care-unit patients die each year with an undiagnosed condition that may have contributed to their deaths.
And research released in 2012 and in past years shows high rates of hospital readmissions, particularly among patients with multiple chronic diseases. The CMS in October launched its readmissions reduction program, which penalizes hospitals with higher-than-average readmission rates. That move has motivated hospitals to look even more closely at coordination of care across settings, as well as patient engagement and education.