The drive to reduce medical errors in hospitals is becoming sidetracked by politics and jurisdictional battles. Rather than arguing about the number of patients victimized by medical errors or who should control access to data, providers should diligently focus on patient-safety initiatives.
The healthcare industry galvanized around medical errors after a 1999 Institute of Medicine report that estimated as many as 98,000 preventable deaths occur each year in U.S. hospitals. Although many hospital managers and physicians felt the IOM numbers were inflated, the report sparked serious discussions about how to streamline workflow processes and improve the quality of care.
The analysis of operations forced administrators and clinicians to admit some deep, dark secrets. It's been a gut-wrenching exercise, but the exchange of information is vital to understanding and reducing medical errors.
The disclosure spotlight also has prompted regulators, politicians, lobbyists and the media to seek a role in the debate. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), for example, has said he will introduce a Patient Safety Improvement Act during the fall session. The legislation would establish a national database to collect data on medical errors voluntarily reported by providers. To motivate participation, the bill would protect information from subpoena or legal discovery.
However, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations would like access to the database, something the American Hospital Association vows to oppose. Meanwhile, patient watchdogs, media commentators and trial lawyers advocate mandatory reporting of medical errors and fewer legal safeguards for providers. A handful of hospitals are beginning to publicly apologize and offer explanations for mistakes that led to tragic consequences.
Amid this confusing backdrop comes a study in the July 25 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that claims the initial IOM numbers were grossly misleading.
Should that matter? One avoidable death is one too many. Patient-safety initiatives are at the crux of quality improvement. Although the effort can be time-consuming and painful for those involved, the momentum must continue.