The Magnitude of Medical Errors

Guest post Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

On May 3, BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) published an analysis of prior research on medical errors by a team led by Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Startlingly, the analysis concluded that more than 250,000 Americans die annually and nearly 700 perish daily from medical errors. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) official list of the top causes of death, that figure would place medical errors as the third leading cause of death, behind only heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and ahead of respiratory disease, which caused over 147,000 deaths.

The kind of medical mistakes that can be fatal range from surgical complications that go unrecognized to errors regarding the doses or types of medications administered to patients.

The Johns Hopkins analysis received widespread media coverage, with the New York Times, NBC News, NPR, Time, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post, among others, all reporting the study’s findings.

This is certainly not the first time that medical errors have attracted the attention of the mainstream media.

The Institute of Medicine’s landmark report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, released in November 1999, concluded that 44,000 to 98,000 Americans died each year because of preventable mistakes in hospitals. Moreover, the report estimated the annual costs of medical errors at $17 billion to $29 billion.

It was estimated that more than 100 million Americans were aware of the general conclusions of the IOM report, thanks to ample media coverage, which conveyed the idea that medical errors were more prevalent and costly than previously thought. Despite all the publicity about medical errors as a result of the IOM report, it would appear that the U.S. healthcare system is not any safer more than 16 years later.

No one knows the precise toll of medical errors, largely because the coding system used by CDC to record death certificate data does not capture items such as communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, and poor judgment, all of which can cost lives.

In terms of the economic cost of medical errors, a study sponsored by the Society for Actuaries and conducted by Milliman in 2010 concluded that medical errors in 2008 cost the United States $19.5 billion—$17 billion (87 percent) of which was directly associated with added medical costs (inpatient care, ancillary services, prescription drug services, and outpatient care). The remainder was due to increased mortality rates and days of lost productivity from missed work, based on short-term disability claims.

Adjusting for the increase in the U.S. population from 2008 to 2016, the current year’s cost of medical errors is estimated at $20.8 billion. Continue Reading

Does the US Technology Gap Push Med Errors into the Third Leading Cause of Death?

Guest post by Thanh Tran, CEO, Zoeticx, Inc.

Thanh Tran
Thanh Tran

Hardly a day goes by without some new revelation of a US IT mess that seems like an endless round of the old radio show joke contest, “Can You Top This”, except increasingly the joke is on us. From nuclear weapons updated with floppy disks to needless medical deaths, many of which are still caused by preventable interoperability communication errors as has been the case for decades.

According to a report released to Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the US government last year spent 75 percent of its technology budget to maintain aging computers where floppy disks are still used, including one system for US nuclear forces that is more than 50 years old. In a previous GAO report, the news is equally alarming as it impacts the healthcare of millions of American’s and could be the smoking gun in a study from the British Medical Journal citing medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer.

The GAO interoperability report, requested by Congressional leaders, reported on the status of efforts to develop infrastructure that could lead to nationwide interoperability of health information. The report described a variety of efforts being undertaken to facilitate interoperability, but most of the efforts remain “works in progress.” Moreover, in its report, the GAO identified five barriers to interoperability.

CMS Pushing for “Plug and Play” Interoperability Tools that Already Exist

Meanwhile in a meeting with the Massachusetts Medical Society, Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) acknowledges in the CMS interoperability effort “we are not sending a man to the moon.”

“We are actually expecting (healthcare) technology to do the things that it already does for us every day. So there must be other reasons why technology and information aren’t flowing in ways that match patient care,” Slavitt stated. “Partly, I believe some of the reasons are actually due to bad business practices. But, I think some of the technology will improve through the better use of standards and compliance. And I think we’ll make significant progress through the implementation of API’s in the next version of (Electronic Health Records) EHR’s which will spur innovation by allowing for plug and play capability. The private sector has to essentially change or evolve their business practices so that they don’t subvert this intent. If you are a customer of a piece of technology that doesn’t do what you want, it’s time to raise your voice.”

He claims that CMS has “very few higher priorities” other than interoperability. It is also interesting that two different government entities point their fingers at interoperability yet “plug and play” API solutions have been available through middleware integration for years, the same ones that are successfully used in the retail, banking and hospitality industries. As a sign of growing healthcare middleware popularity, Black Book Research, recently named the top ten middleware providers as Zoeticx, HealthMark, Arcadia Healthcare Solutions, Extension Healthcare, Solace Systems, Oracle, Catavolt, Microsoft, SAP and Kidozen.

Medical Errors Third Leading Cause of Death in US 

The British Medical Journal recently reported that medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. As such, medical errors should be a top priority for research and resources, say authors Martin Makary, MD, MPH, professor of surgery, and research fellow Michael Daniel, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. However, accurate, transparent information about errors is not captured on death certificates which are the documents the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses for ranking causes of death and setting health priorities. Death certificates depend on International Classification of Diseases (ICD) codes for cause of death, but causes such as human and EHR errors are not recorded on them.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 117 countries code their mortality statistics using the ICD system. The authors call for better reporting to help capture the scale of the problem and create strategies for reducing it. “Top-ranked causes of death as reported by the CDC form our country’s research funding and public health priorities,” says Makary in a press release. “Right now, cancer and heart disease get a ton of attention, but since medical errors don’t appear on the list, the problem doesn’t get the funding and attention it deserves. It boils down to people dying from the care that they receive rather than the disease for which they are seeking care.”

The Root Cause of Many Patient Errors

Better coding and reporting is a no-brainer and should be required to get to the bottom of the errors so they can be identified and resolved. However, in addition to not reporting the causes of death, there are other roadblocks leading to this frighteningly sad statistic such as lack of EHR interoperability. Unfortunately, the vast majority of medical devices, EHRs and other healthcare IT components lack interoperability, meaning a built-in or integrated platform that can exchange information across vendors, settings, and device types.

Various systems and equipment are typically purchased from different manufacturers. Each comes with its own proprietary interface technology like the days before the client and server ever met. Moreover, hospitals often must invest in separate systems to pull together all these disparate pieces of technology to feed data from bedside devices to EHR systems, data warehouses, and other applications that aid in clinical decision making, research and analytics. Many bedside devices, especially older ones, don’t even connect and require manual reading and data entry.

Healthcare providers are sometimes forced to mentally take notes on various pieces of information to draw conclusions. This is time consuming and error-prone. This cognitive load, especially in high stress situations, increases the risk of error such as accessing information on the wrong patient, performing the wrong action or placing the wrong order. Because information can be entered into various areas of the EHR, the possibility of duplicating or omitting information arises. Through the EHR, physicians can often be presented with a list of documentation located in different folders that can be many computer screens long and information can be missed.

The nation’s largest health systems employ thousands of people dedicated to dealing with “non-interoperability.” The abundance of proprietary protocols and interfaces that restrict healthcare data exchange takes a huge toll on productivity. In addition to EHR’s physical inability, tactics such as data blocking and hospital IT contracts that prevent data sharing by EHR vendors are also used to prevent interoperability. Healthcare overall has experienced negative productivity in this area over the past decade.

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