April 12th, 2011
03:03 PM ET

HHS takes aim at medical errors, health care costs

Tens of thousand of lives and millions of dollars in health care costs can be saved, by taking steps to reduce medical errors.  That's what health officials say will happen by implementing a new initiative announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, "Partnership for Patients" will save 60,000 lives over the next three years by reducing millions of preventable hospital related complications and injuries.  Sebelius says the new partnership will also save about $35 billion in health care costs including $10 billion in Medicare savings.

"Americans go to the hospital to get well, but millions of patients are injured because of preventable complications and accidents," said Sebelius. "Working closely with hospitals, doctors, nurses, patients, families and employers, we will support efforts to help keep patients safe, improve care, and reduce costs. Working together, we can help eliminate preventable harm to patients."

The agency will invest up to $1 billion in federal funding from the Affordable Care Act to launch the initiative. $500 million of that money was made available immediately and will be used to help hospitals reach two goals. The first is to prevent nine types of errors and complications such as adverse drug reactions, childbirth complications, infections at surgical sites and pressure ulcers.  A number of hospitals have already demonstrated dramatic success in reducing these types of problems and will be used as models for others.  The second  goal is to prevent complications when moving a patient from the hospital to an outpatient setting, in an effort to reduce hospital readmissions by 20%.  If these goals are achieved, more than 1.6 million patients would not need to be hospitalized again within 30 days of being discharged, according to HHS.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Center will help hospitals put improvements in place.  Over the next 10 years, the initiative could reduce Medicare and Medicaid cost by more than $50 billion, according to Dr. Donald Berwick, the CMS administrator who is leading the initiative.

"With new tools provided by the Affordable Care Act, we can aggressively implement programs that will help hospitals reduce preventable errors," Berwick said. "We will provide hospitals with incentives to improve the quality of health care, and provide real assistance to medical professionals and hospitals to support their efforts to reduce harm."

Sebelius says the ultimate goal is to eliminate errors altogether.  But the numbers paint a sobering picture.  According to a newly released study in Health Affairs, one in three patients hospitalized suffer some sort of medical error or adverse event, and approximately one in  20 get a hospital related infection.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, nearly 2 million Americans get an infection when hospitalized.  More than a decade ago, the Institute of Medicine found that up to 98,000 patients die each year as a result of medical errors.

American Medical Association president Dr. Cecil Wilson says the AMA's physicians will be encouraged to do everything they can to reduce adverse events and hospital readmissions. "We know that if we ensure that a patient’s primary care physician receives their discharge papers within 24 hours of their release from the hospital, the likelihood of hospital readmission will be reduced."  Wilson said a portion of this funding will be used to create tools that doctor can use to help improve safety and continuity of care for patients.

America's Health Insurance Plans, another partner in this initiative, says health plans are already focusing on reducing hospital-acquired infections, dangerous drug interactions and preventable readmissions.

"We are proud that health plans have played a leadership role in bringing patient safety programs to the delivery system,"said Karen Ignagni, AHIP President and CEO. "We pledge to work together with the public sector and other stakeholders to further reduce hospital admissions and prevent hospital acquired infections."

Consumers Union, an independent group that provides health care information to consumers says it's an important initiative , but hospitals should be held accountable for medical errors by requiring mandatory public reporting of each hospital's performance.

"We've known for years that millions of Americans are unnecessarily harmed in the hospital every year from preventable infections and other medical errors," said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project.  "A high-profile, coordinated, national response to our patient safety crisis is long overdue. We are encouraged that the Obama administration is making patient safety a national priority.  Public reporting of each hospital's patient safety track record is the best way to measure whether this effort is successful."

HHS says more than 500 hospitals have already committed to the initiative.  They also have received commitments from physicians and nurses groups including the AMA, consumer groups and employers.  Berwick, says he hopes to have things up and running within the next couple of months.

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Anne C

    Improving the delivery of care is indeed one aspect that needs to be addressed by the health care reform. 'Coz if simple illnesses are not handled well and they lead to more complicated disease, it will raise the costs and patients who will need to come back for more treatment since they weren't treated right the first time just adds to the already long lines in emergency rooms. Another benefit to look forward to with the implementation of the new health care law.

    Anne C
    NY Health Insurer

    April 12, 2011 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Dave in FL

    Obama: "Yes, that whole nasty budget business was rather unpleasant, wasn't it? Besides all those numbers are boring and I wanna talk about something else. How about healthcare?"

    April 12, 2011 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. But I Get Up Again

    Every one of us needs to be an "Empowered Patient" – I had several very bad experiences with staff at supposedly the best hospital in New York City. This included bringing an hysterical woman into my room (I am male) at 1:30 in the morning, waking me up & couldn't get back to sleep that night. Three letter of complaint to the hospital went unanswered. For free tips on this, links to related articles, free videos and books: http://shareourtips.com/health_empowered_patient.html

    April 12, 2011 at 19:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. AzAl

    It's about time. The health care industry is late in realizing they need safety procedures built into the system. They and certain politicians want to blame the tort system, but the industry really needs to get its act together first. I applaud the emphasis on patient safety.

    April 12, 2011 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris

      100 % 'error proof'...easy enough; "your dr/rt/rn/pt will be robot Hal today"...

      April 12, 2011 at 21:47 | Report abuse |
  5. Robert Smithee

    Words, just words, and most of which we have heard before. No specifics, just good intentions. Wonder what the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations has been doing all these years? And all those 25 or so "quality assurance" organizations? The only incentive that has worked in the past is to stop paying for shoddy care, and not continuing to throw more money at the problem with recycled and renamed QA programs. Anybody notice that the two biggest offenders are Medicare and Medicaid, which are government-run programs? Why should anybody believe that the government can do a better job this time?

    April 13, 2011 at 10:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Bhavin Jani

    I am a primary care physician and has seen the healthcare industry since 1994 get from bad to worse. They can never fix it because the 2 main players in the field are the patient and the doctor who are not calling the shots. Non physicans are making decisions how to deliver healthcare. The patient needs to be empowered and take control, listen to the doctor. Tort reform is a must to stop us from practicing defensive medicine.
    Preventive medicine is the cheapest medicine and does not need health insurance if orders from the doctors are strictly followed but only 2 out of every 10 patients really follow the recommendations

    April 13, 2011 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Siegbert Tarrasch, Tacoma WA

    The list of huge problems with health-care providers is gargantuan, like their equally gargantuan egos, mistakes, guess-work, cluelessness, obstinacy, etc., any one of which can, and obviously does, get patients injured, crippled or dead. At the same time they whine about getting Tort Reform when they should do a better, more thoughtful job. Look, if you’re going to cause pain, suffering and death to people instead of help them, then yeah, you should get bashed with huge lawsuits. These health-care providers want to be able to accidentally sever a patient’s spinal cord, but not suffer the same fate translated into a monetary value; if you paralyze, cripple, disfigure, kill, a patient, etc., you should be devastated just as much as what you did to that person.

    April 13, 2011 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Desiree

      I dearly hope the next time you are in need of medical care that you get a provider like the one you described above. Medical care IS in need of reform, and there certainly are awful providers out there. But blanketing an entire group of people (many who do care and work hard) with a bunch of nasty adjectives is hardly a solution to the problem.

      April 13, 2011 at 16:32 | Report abuse |
  8. Ann

    I am glad to see this issue and its cost implications finally getting addressed. A glaring example from my family – one family member nearly died from infection and complications from medical errors during what was supposed to be a simple procedure. Long story short – what should have been a 2-3 day stay costing maybe $40,000 turned into an 8 month horror show of intensive care, repair surgeries, etc that ran more than $300,000. Thankfully covered by insurance – but errors and incompetence drove this cost sky high. Not to mention pain, lost work, and lifelong damage. One surgeon involved had made exactly the same mistake on other patients with similar results. We need access to quality control measures on doctors and hospitals, errors need to be reported and policed much better, and insurance companies need to start handing the bill back to the hospital when the hospital or its doctors screw up. That's the only incentive I can see for hospitals to improve their procedures and weed out incompetence. Tort reform, my heinie! Let's start eliminating the mistakes instead of penalizing the patients who are victims and the health insurers who get hit with the bills.

    April 13, 2011 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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