Death Toll from Hospital Malpractice Revised Upward

195,000 Hospital Deaths Per Year

Death Toll from Hospital Malpractice Revised Upward

HealthGrades, a private Denver-based company that rates hospitals for health plans and insurers, has recently released the results of a survey from all 50 states that reveals that medical errors are responsible for the deaths of 195,000 people a year in American hospitals, more than double the estimate provided in earlier studies.

These findings make medical mistakes the THIRD-LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH in the country, behind heart disease and cancer.

There is little evidence that patient safety has improved in the last five years, according to Dr. Samantha Collier, vice president of medical affairs at HealthGrades, which publishes rankings of hospitals and doctors. Dr. Collier has stated that the "equivalent of 390 jumbo jets full of people are dying each year due to likely preventable, in-hospital medical errors, making this one of the leading killers in the United States."

In accumulating the statistics for this study, HealthGrades utilized a definition of medical errors that included cases in which hospital staff failed to respond quickly to signs of infection or other dangerous problems, which is an expansion of the definition used in previous studies such as that of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association or that of the Institute of Medicine.

A 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government on health care issues, used a more limited definition, restricting hospital related deaths to overdoses and post surgical infections. That study counted 98,000 deaths in 1999. The HealthGrades' figure of 195,000 deaths annually from 2000 to 2002 leads to the conclusion that Americans paid an extra $19 billion in medical care costs for the victims of mistakes.

Patient safety analysts say that HealthGrades' report confirms their belief that the Institute of Medicine's death estimate was too low. One of the coauthors of the institute study, Dr. Lucian Leape of the Harvard School of Public Health, has long said his estimate was based on a conservative definition of mistakes that underestimated the real toll.

Numerous studies support the conclusion that medical errors are widespread, harming up to one in 25 patients who are admitted to the hospital.

Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer of the National Quality Forum, a Washington-based organization that studies health care quality measurement, has stated that "this should give you pause when you go to the hospital." He believes that HealthGrades' numbers would be even larger if researchers factored in errors at other outpatient settings, such as nursing homes and private doctors' offices.