An estimated 13.5 percent of all Medicare patients in hospitals nationwide experienced “adverse events” during their hospital stays, according to statistics compiled by the Inspector General. While some adverse events do not involve hospital mistakes, among the most common preventable adverse events are surgical errors, instances of patient infection, and errors in the choices and dosages of medicines administered to patients. Estimates of the unnecessary treatment costs run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
While trial lawyers are sometimes blamed for focusing on statistics like those contained in the Inspector General’s report, medical errors have long been the subject of study within the medical profession itself as a part of its obvious and commendable desire to improve the quality of patient care. One seemingly simple, but apparently controversial, solution has been the subject of study by Peter Pronovost, a critical-care specialist at one of this country’s preeminent medical facilities, Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Pronovost developed a precise protocol to prevent line infections (those arising from the insertion and removal of various tubes and lines into a patient’s body), a leading “adverse event” often adding to hospital stays and leading to a startling number of deaths. By implementing a simple checklist, much like airline pilots use in commercial aviation, and requiring attention to it by hospital administrators, doctors and nurses alike, medical facilities where Pronovost’s protocol has been put in place have seen a remarkable decrease in line infections. In one hospital monitored by Pronovost and his colleagues, they calculated that in a fifteen-month period, the checklist prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, while saving two million dollars in costs that would have been incurred if the previous number of “adverse events” (infections) had occurred.
The approach recommended by Pronovost has its share of critics and naysayers, but its validity is increasingly difficult to challenge. Saving lives and preventing unnecessary illness and death have always been goals of the medical profession in the United States. However, increased and unnecessary costs resulting from medical errors are also garnering attention. Every health care consumer should become educated about this subject, which is increasingly a topic in the press. The health of each of us and our families will depend on it.