Drop in Hospital Error Rate Saves $12B Since 2010
Policy + Politics

Drop in Hospital Error Rate Saves $12B Since 2010

Preventable medical errors and hospital-acquired infections have long plagued the U.S. health care system and led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, serious injuries and billions in health care costs each year. 

Now, a new report from the Health and Human Services Department suggests that new provisions under Obamacare, as well as a joint effort with health officials and hospitals, have dramatically curbed the problem over the last four years – resulting in 50,000 fewer preventable deaths and a savings of $12 billion. 

Related: Medicare Rates Hospital Safety 

In the last four years under the Affordable Care Act, the hospital-acquired conditions rate (the rate at which patients acquire illnesses in the hospital, such as bed sores or infections) has dropped by 17 percent, according to the government’s data.

Preventable medical errors are a top cause of death in this country. Since one of the stated goals of Obamacare was to reduce preventable medical mistakes – which cost billions annually – the new report is good news. With the current error rate still well below the federal government’s goal, however, a great deal of work remains to be done.

The study found that roughly 1.3 million fewer incidents of harm occurred in the last four years than would have occurred before the ACA. 

Though health officials touted that number as a major victory, it’s still well below HHS’s earlier stated goal of reducing the hospital-acquired conditions rate by 40 percent over three years. 

The report also said the causes of decline may not be fully attributed to the ACA. HHS first began an effort to reduce hospital mistakes in 2005, when it launched the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act. The department continued to roll out patient safety rules until 2008, two years before Obamacare became law.   

Related: Doctors Leave Primary Care as More Patients Need Them

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell called the new study “welcome news for patients and their families.” She told a health care conference in Baltimore on Tuesday that “these data represent significant progress in improving the quality of care that patients receive while spending our health care dollars more wisely. HHS will work with partners across the country to continue to build on this progress.”

HHS combed through 18,000 to 33,000 medical records each of the last four years and analyzed the error rate for each year. It found that over that time period, the reduced error rate saved the health care system an estimated $12 billion and about 50,000 lives that would have otherwise been lost to preventable errors.

Some 40 percent of the total error reductions had to do with medication – meaning fewer people suffered from drug overdoses or fewer patients were prescribed the wrong medication. About 20 percent of the error reductions involved fewer patients getting bedsores while about 14 percent of the reductions were from fewer patients getting infections from catheters.

“A 17 percent reduction in hospital-acquired conditions is a big deal, but it’s only a start,” Burwell said Tuesday morning. “No American should ever lose his or her life, or spend the holidays in the hospital because of a condition that could have been prevented.”

Related: How to Catch Costly Errors on Your Medical Bills

The report credited some of the error reductions to provisions in the health care law that reward or penalize hospitals for the quality of care. One in particular refunds hospitals less money through Medicare if they have high readmission rates. 

Another is the Partnership for Patients initiative, which started in 2010 between HHS and hospitals to reduce preventable conditions. 

“This has been a bold project with significant success,” a senior hospital industry representative told reporters on a press call Tuesday. 

Burwell said the Obama administration still has plenty of work to do to continue encouraging hospitals to prioritize preventative care.

“We waited until patients got sick in order to treat them, rather than focusing on prevention. Our payment models incentivized volume rather than value,” she said. “I believe that as Americans, we will receive better care – and spend our dollars more wisely – if we find better ways to deliver care.”

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