Healthcare News & Insights

Medical errors: What hospitals can learn from one state’s new approach

Medical errors continue to be a significant problem for American hospitals. One state decided to take a deep dive into its hospitals’ issues with errors – and the approach it’s taking can apply to facilities across the country. 

Recently, state patient safety officials in Massachusetts released a report detailing the impact of medical errors in hospitals: The Financial and Human Cost of Medical Error.

According to the report, although the state’s done well with improving the safety of patients in its hospitals, the risk of death and injury from medical error is still a significant concern. And it becomes even more pressing when factoring in other settings where patients receive care, such as primary care practices, skilled nursing facilities – and even in their own homes.

In Massachusetts alone, there were nearly 62,000 preventable events that harmed patients in 2017. These events directly caused more than $617 million in insurance payouts – or just over 1% of the state’s total healthcare expenses for that year.

Errors have long-lasting effects on many of the patients who experience them. The writers of the report reached out to over 200 patients in the state who’d survived a medical error and conducted in-depth interviews with them about their experiences.

Nearly half said they suffered long-term financial impact because of the error, whether due to lost income (or a lost job) or higher medical expenses. And in the months immediately following the error, 33% said it had a slight or strong impact on their physical health, with 28% still dealing with the impact at least a year later.

Mental health was also affected. Patients reported feeling sad, depressed, anxious, angry and abandoned or betrayed by their doctors for years after errors occurred in some cases.

Elements to prevent, mitigate errors

Since medical errors are so costly and harmful to patients in myriad ways, it’s essential for hospitals to lead the charge when it comes to protecting patients from preventable harm.

Massachusetts is approaching the problem by creating a state Health Care Safety and Quality Consortium that’ll develop a “roadmap to safety and quality” for all healthcare organizations to follow.

The actionable steps in the roadmap will be shaped by four key elements:

  1. Transparency. Having clear, public data about patient safety risks is key to creating a strategy to prevent them. It also keeps facilities accountable for any errors that occur and encourages them to take corrective steps.
  2. Culture. All hospitals and healthcare organizations should promote a patient safety culture where the priority is identifying medical errors and near-misses. Instead of punishing staff for adverse events, the focus should be on putting improvements in place to keep them from occurring.
  3. Learning systems. Providers need the opportunity to regularly learn about ways to reduce medical errors through training that highlights specific risk factors. Patients and families should also be involved and taught about their role in improving safety.
  4. Support for patients and providers. When medical errors occur, both patients and providers need support. The aftermath can take its toll on patients and their families, but providers may also feel overwhelmed and stressed after an adverse event. Facilities should prioritize open communication and offer resources (such as support groups) to help everyone cope.

Once the roadmap is complete, patients in Massachusetts just might find their hospital stays to be a little safer. Although the state’s goal is to make broad, wide-sweeping change across all healthcare settings, there’s no reason why a hospital couldn’t implement some of these elements on a smaller scale to improve the safety of patients behind its walls.

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