Patients safety incidents cost the US federal Medicare program $8.8 billion and
resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people from 2004 to 2006, a major study has found.

The HealthGrades' Patient Safety in American Hospitals Study discovered that overall 3% of all patients – over a million people -- admitted under Medicare during the three years in question were injured -- largely as a result of medical mistakes, including prescribing errors.

“The prevalence of likely preventable patient safety incidents is taking a costly toll on our health care systems in both lives and dollars,” said Dr Samantha Collier, HealthGrades' chief medical officer and the lead author of the study. And she noted that with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services preparing to stop reimbursing hospitals for the treatment of eight major preventable errors in October this year, the financial implications for hospitals were huge.

Key findings were:
- Medicare patients who experienced a patient-safety incident had a one-in-five
chance of dying as a result
- 238,337 potentially preventable patients deaths occurred due to safety incidents and medical errors
- Overall death rate among Medicare patients who experienced safety incidents decreased almost five percent from 2004 through 2006.
- However, four indicators: post-operative respiratory failure, post-operative pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis, post-operative sepsis, and post-operative abdominal wound separation/splitting, increased when compared to 2004.

In addition, Dr Collier said that the survey of 41 million Medicare patient records highlighted the continuing discrepancy between the best and worst performing hospitals.

Patients treated in hospitals ranked in the top 5% in safety terms (the top 250 out of 5,000 hospitals) had, on average, a 43% lower chance of experiencing one or more medical errors compared to those in the worst-performing hospitals.

“HealthGrades has documented in numerous studies the significant and largely unchanging gap between top-performing and poor-performing hospitals,” she said.

$2 million could be saved
If all hospitals had performed as well as the top 250 centres, approximately 220,000 patient safety incidents and 37,214 Medicare deaths could have been avoided -- while saving the US health system $2.0 billion into the bargain.

Last year researchers from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, Pennsylvania reported that the number of serious adverse drug events and medication errors in the US was growing at four times the rate of the number of prescriptions.

In the UK, Nice the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has joined forces with the National Patient Safety Agency to issue the first-ever patient safety guidance to the NHS in a bid to cut the death toll from prescribing errors.

The UK’s National Audit Office estimated that there were 1.2 million safety incidents in the NHS in the year 2004-2005. Research indicates that around 7% were due to human error.