Nearly 3 percent of patients in the nation's hospitals risk experiencing hospital errors, a new study finds. And the numbers could be on the rise.
The report further suggests that those patients who experience an error in treatment or care at a hospital have a one in four chance of dying from the mistake.
The study, released Tuesday by the independent health care ratings company HealthGrades, followed more than 40 million Medicare hospitalization records from 2003 to 2005.
What it found was that 1.16 million preventable "patient safety incidents" occurred over the three years studied, which means that 2.86 percent of all the patients studied experienced a health problem brought about by their hospital stay.
Worse, because of these incidences, 247,662 patients died from potentially preventable problems.
The cost is measured not only in lives but in dollars as well. The excess cost to hospitals was $8.6 billion over the course of the three-year study, with some of the most common occurrences proving to be the most costly.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence -- most notably, a report by the Institute of Medicine in 2006 -- suggesting that hospitals present many patients with avoidable and sometimes deadly health risks.
"Despite the flurry of research, publications and process improvement activity that has occurred since the [Institute of Medicine] report, there is a growing consensus that not much progress has been made, leading to a visible national impact," the study authors write.
The study brings to the forefront a frightening possibility -- that a significant percentage of Americans who are hospitalized every year face health risks from their hospital stay.
The number of Medicare patients suffering from hospital errors "absolutely can be extrapolated" to the U.S. hospital population in general, says Kristin Reed, a spokesperson for HealthGrades and co-author of the study.
"These are patient safety events, so these are events that should not happen, ever."
The complications measured in the study include accidental puncture or laceration, complications of anesthesia, foreign objects left in the patient's body during a procedure and infections spread through medical care.
Dr. David Bates, chief of the general internal medicine division at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, says the findings underscore the fact that patient safety in hospitals is a serious concern.
But are the numbers as bad as they seem? Bates says part of the increase may be due to the fact that the average patient, in general, is in worse health today than those of decades past.
"Patients are getting older and sicker, and they are taking more medications," he says. Sicker patients mean a higher chance of dying while in the hospital, regardless of whether a hospital error was made or not.
But Bates says that even with this in mind, the numbers highlight a severe problem in U.S. hospitals.
"If anything, this is probably an underestimation of the magnitude of the problem," he says, adding that more information will be needed to completely understand the scope of the problem.
"The truth is that there is not really good information when it comes to patient safety," he says.
Both Reed and Bates say the report reveals certain steps that hospitals must take in order to ensure patient safety.