President Clinton last week demanded swift action from healthcare providers and government officials to improve patient safety at the nation's hospitals.
Clinton's efforts follow an Institute of Medicine report that said medical errors by healthcare facilities and practitioners kill between 44,000 and 98,000 patients every year. That tops breast cancer, automobile accidents and AIDS as a cause of death (Dec. 6, p. 16). The errors add as much as $29 billion to Americans' medical bills, according to the report. The institute recommended that a new system be created to track errors and require providers to report errors to a national organization.
On Dec. 7, Clinton signed an executive memorandum that:
* Directs the Quality Interagency Coordination Task Force, which includes representatives of HHS and the Department of Labor, to analyze the IOM's recommendations and report back to the president within 60 days.
* Requires the 300 health plans that participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program to implement quality-improvement and patient-safety initiatives.
* Authorizes the Agency for Health Care Quality and Research to use its $25 million in research funding to study medical errors and how to avoid them.
* Directs the Office of Management and Budget to look at ways to fund more research and quality-improvement efforts in its fiscal 2001 budget proposal.
"This is about more than dollars or statistics," Clinton said at the signing ceremony at the White House. "It's about the toll that such errors take on people's lives and on their faith in our healthcare system. Too many families have been victims of medical errors that are avoidable, mistakes that are preventable-tragedies, therefore, that are unacceptable."
That same day, in response to the federal government's intense interest, the American Hospital Association unveiled an initiative to help its members reduce the incidence of medication errors. Medication errors are the most common cause of medical mishaps, said AHA President Richard Davidson.
"This is a long-term commitment on the part of the nation's hospitals, and we expect to stand by that and be very vigorous in our initiatives," Davidson said.
The AHA will form a partnership with the Huntingdon Valley, Pa.-based Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a not-for-profit organization that will provide best practices information to AHA members.
The AHA had engaged in talks with the institute a few months ago but had been working on the medical errors
issue for at least two years, said Carmela Coyle, the AHA's senior vice president of policy.
The AHA will also work on developing a framework for an appropriate and "blameless" system whereby workers feel free to report errors without the fear of legal or administrative punishment.
Though on recess until early January, members of Congress have already taken a keen interest in the IOM's report.
The Senate Appropriations Committee's HHS panel is conducting a hearing this week to investigate the issue, according to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the panel's chairman.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, said several Republican senators, including committee Chairman James Jeffords (R-Vt.), also want to hold hearings on medical errors early next year.
Kennedy has promised to introduce legislation next year aimed at reducing medical errors.