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Archive Staff & Patient Safety 2016

Stop the Preventable Medical Error Crisis

How many more patients must die before we decide enough is enough?

Karen Feinstein, PhD


serious healthcare professionals LOOK IN THE MIRROR It's time for all healthcare professionals to seriously consider what they can to do promote safe patient care.

No one would disagree that every life is precious. Need proof? People from all walks of life dash into burning buildings, dig through rubble and plunge into raging waters just for the chance to pull someone back from the brink. And yet this shared societal commitment to preserving life seemingly doesn't extend to health care. If we truly value every life, why is the news that an estimated quarter of a million patients die each year from preventable medical errors met with a shrug? There's more outrage generated when a popular Dancing with the Stars contestant is voted off the show than when we find out that the population of Orlando perishes each year because healthcare professionals don't follow infection prevention protocols, forgo safety checklists, overprescribe deadly amounts of medication or mark the wrong surgical site. How much longer will you let that apathy continue?

Problems persist
Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease and cancer, according to a recent study in The BMJ (see "It's Time for Honest Discussions About Medical Care Gone Wrong" on p. 40 for insights from the study's author). Certain aspects of heart disease and cancer remain a mystery, but that's not the case with medical errors. We already know how to prevent them, and doing so doesn't require singular acts of heroism. It simply requires leadership, accountability and a culture of safety. Healthcare economics and clinical advances are shifting more surgeries into the outpatient arena. The rise in both the number and complexity of outpatient procedures increases the potential for life-threatening mistakes and puts facilities like yours on the front line in the battle against medical errors.

Unfortunately, patients are continually put in jeopardy. In 2010, for example, CMS piloted an infection control audit tool in 70 ASCs throughout 3 states to assess practices related to hand hygiene, injection safety, medication handling, environmental cleaning, equipment sterilization and disinfection, and the handling of blood glucose equipment. The findings? More than two-thirds of the ASCs had at least a single infection control oversight, and about one-fifth had more than 3 lapses. That's alarming, especially when you consider ASCs often outperform hospitals when it comes to following infection control guidelines.

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