World Health Organization: Medical Errors, Infections Make Hospitals Dangerous
A hospital stay is more dangerous than an airplane flight, the World Health Organization announced Thursday, warning that medical errors and hospital-acquired infections kill millions of patients annually. "If you were admitted to the hospital tomorrow in any country, your chances of being subjected to an error would be something like 1 in 10," and your chances of being killed by one would be 1 in 300, said Liam Donaldson, WHO envoy for patient safety, during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The odds of dying in an airplane crash: about 1 in 10 million. Among every 100 hospitalized patients, 7 in developed countries and 10 in developing countries will acquire at least one preventable infection (like a virus or surgical-site infection). Healthcare workers who don't properly wash their hands before treating patients are often to blame, according to WHO. Those most at risk for errors and infections are intensive care unit patients, who are prone to lengthier stays. Urinary catheters and ventilators are particularly likely sources of infection.
When a Hospital Is Bad for You
The U.S. News Best Hospitals rankings and other resources can help steer you to a top-notch hospital when a procedure or condition requires exceptional skill. For routine care, such as repairing a torn rotator cuff or inserting a heart stent, most hospitals will do a fine job. Still, "most" is not "all." Sometimes a particular hospital can be the right choice for some patients but the wrong one for you.
There aren't many hospitals so terrible that they're lethal. A 50 percent death rate or other glaring red flag would prompt padlocks on the doors. But you don't want a place that has little experience with your surgical or medical needs—or is less alert than it should be for anything that could go wrong. Rates of postsurgical complications such as bleeding, infection, and sudden kidney failure vary surprisingly little, according to a study last year of nearly 200 hospitals across the country.
What does differ are deaths from such complications, says John Birkmeyer, a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School and the study's coauthor. Mortality rates at some hospitals in the study were almost twice as high as at others. A good hospital, says Birkmeyer, catches problems and responds quickly. [Read more: When a Hospital Is Bad for You.]
The Era of Electronic Medical Records
Twenty years ago the influential Institute of Medicine began prodding the medical community to embrace electronic medical records. EMRs would make healthcare better, safer, and more efficient, argued the IOM, if every person's complete medical history was stored on computers linked up across the country. Clinicians anywhere could view a patient's every blood test, hospital stay, and X-ray; smart software would guide diagnoses. In hospitals, prescribed drugs and doses would be computer-vetted against each patient to forestall life-threatening medication errors. The medical community's general reaction: great idea, but difficult and expensive. As the years passed, hospitals did gradually adopt "computerized physician order entry" for prescriptions, but otherwise marriages between computers and healthcare largely took place in billing departments and other back offices.
That is now changing—quickly. Hospitals have come to appreciate the value of collecting and analyzing data that help them understand where and how often things go wrong, sometimes dangerously but more often wastefully. And the federal government, aided by provisions in the health reform law, is waving a financial stick in one hand and dangling a carrot in the other to punish or reward doctors and hospitals that variously resist or embrace health information technology. The Department of Health and Human Services is offering financial incentives to hospitals and doctors' practices that can achieve what it calls "meaningful use" of electronic records by certain dates. Providers who fall behind in achieving meaningful use will eventually receive lower reimbursement rates for treating Medicare patients. [Read more: The Era of Electronic Medical Records.]