Speakers at conference discuss impacts and possible solutions for deadly mistakes and near misses in hospitals

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Medical mistakes made in hospitals cause 98,000 deaths per year. Or four times that many?

That is the widely accepted number based on a 1999 Institute of Medicine report, but a study published in the Journal of Patient Safety says that as many as 210,000 to 440,000 Americans die each year in the hospital because of a preventable harm, Marshall Allen of ProPublica reports on NPR. But the current culture in health care does not support the reporting of mistakes or near misses, said speakers at the Health Watch USA 2013 Conference on Nov. 1 in Lexington.

Keith Widmeier, training officer for the Wayne County Emergency Medical Service, talked about the importance of reporting medical errors: "How are we supposed to fix things if we don't address the near misses?" he asked. "We must look at patterns and address them, learn from the data. Reliable data helps promote systemic change. The current system creates a system of not reporting."

Helen Haskell, president of the grassroots patient-safety organization Mothers Against Medical Error, said there are many contributing factors to this culture, and suggested that there is much to be learned from patient stories.

She told story after tragic story of young patients who had died because of medical error, including the story of her son, Lewis Blackman.

Lewis was a healthy 15-year-old who developed severe upper abdominal pain while on a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and a narcotic following an elective surgery. Nurses and residents failed to act upon increasing signs of instability, including 24 hours with no urine output and four hours with no blood pressure. Haskell asked repeatedly for an attending physician. Four days after the operation, her son died. The autopsy showed a giant duodenal ulcer and 2.8 liters of blood and gastric secretions in the peritoneal cavity. He had been bleeding internally.

It is the responsibility of our health care system to become more transparent, listen to people's stories and put systems in place to decrease the chance of medical errors, Haskell said. Health care must improve in the areas that errors most commonly occur, she said, such as true informed consent, unnecessary surgeries, medication and diagnostic error, failure to rescue, and communication errors.

To decrease medical errors, Haskell suggested that the system use technology as the driver of improvement, providing continuous feedback between everyone involved in the care of a patient and involve the community and government.

Nurse burnout and job dissatisfaction also lead to medical error in hospitals.

"We cannot expect high quality health care with burnout," said Jeannie Cimiotte, a Ph.D., RN and associate professor at the Rutgers University College of Nursing and executive director of the New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing.
Cimiotte cited a Pennsylvania study that found the implications of increases in nurse workload are burnout and job dissatisfaction, missing important changes in patient conditions and failing to report important patient information at shift change. She said the study also found high nurse burnout appears to be a possible explanation for the association between nurse staffing and infection, jeopardizing patient safety resulting in hospital-acquired conditions and poor health care outcomes.

A culture of change and transparency has been implemented and is working at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Lexington since 1987, said Dr. Steve Kraman, who was chief of staff and chairman of the Risk Management Committee of the hospitals from 1986 to 2003. They not only require the reporting of medical errors and near misses, but provide full disclosure to patients who have been injured because of accidents or medical negligence, and offer fair compensation for injuries, Kraman said.

The VA has used this model since 1987 and has had "encouragingly moderate liability payments," said Kraman. In 2010, the University of Michigan reported remarkable decreases in suits, costs, trials and time to resolution. They also linked the openness of such a program with patient safety benefits due to reduced need for secrecy surrounding errors. The University of Illinois reports no increase in either number or suits or payouts since participating in this model of care, according to Kraman.

Kraman asked the participants: Is full accountability and transparency the way we should do health care? The answer was a resounding yes.

"This is a decision based on how we behave in society.  We should behave in a stand-up manner," Kraman said.

Health Watch USA, based in Somerset, was founded by Dr. Kevin Kavanagh to promote health care transparency and patient advocacy, says its website.
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