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Study: Medication Errors in Massachusetts Continue to Afflict

At 39, Betsy Lehman was a successful health reporter for the Boston Globe. She was also a wife and mother of two. Her loved ones hoped she might one day claim the title "breast cancer survivor."

Sadly, she never got that chance. However, it wasn't the cancer that killed her. It was the massive, fourfold overdose of chemotherapy treatment she received while at a renowned facility in Boston. Her death spurred widespread response from area leaders vowing to tackle the deadly problem of medical errors.

The first analysis was a survey conducted by Harvard School of Public Health. Of the 1,224 Massachusetts residents polled, almost one-quarter reported they or someone close to them was the victim of a medical mistake at some point in the past five years. What's more, nearly half of those said the mistake had serious consequences for their health and well-being.

This doesn't align with the narrative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which reported a 17 percent decrease in hospital-acquired conditions (infections and errors) nationwide from 2010 to 2013. However, researchers in Boston may have a plausible explanation: Most people did not report medical mistakes when they occurred, either because they didn't think it would have any positive effect, or they weren't sure how they might report in the first place.

The local statistics are among a series of new reports, commissioned by officials with the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction - an organization founded in memory of Lehman. Despite strides reported by federal officials, there is grave concern when you still have 1 in 4 patients in this state suffering ill effects of medication errors.

Fewer Medical Error Deaths Nationwide

Officials with HHS report the nationwide decline in acquired infections and other medical errors has resulted in 50,000 fewer deaths during the three-year study period. This in turn has meant a savings of $12 billion in medical costs, injuries, lost wages and other expenses.

The agency has been working on greater enforcement with funding received from the Affordable Care Act, beginning in 2011. At the time, the journal Health Affairs released a study indicating an astonishing 1 in 3 hospital patients suffered some type of "adverse event" while receiving care. Among those incidents:

  • Receiving the wrong medication
  • Getting too much or too little medication
  • Acquiring an infection attributed to unsanitary conditions or unsterile practices
  • Getting the wrong surgical procedure
  • Suffering an error in surgical procedure

The new data came after a landmark 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine, which found nearly 100,000 people died in hospitals annually as a direct result of preventable medical errors.

It's true that many larger health care institutions had already been reporting dramatic declines in these type of issues for several years. However, many patient advocates and health care experts believed the progress happening on a national scale is simply too slow, especially considering most of these issues are easily preventable.

The federal ACA initiative involved HHS leaders working closely with hospital administrators and patient advocates to find workable solutions. Administrators acknowledged there was no clear way to know definitively if the initiative can be credited with he reductions in medical errors. However, there are some indicators that could be the case.

For example, hospitals participating in the program slashed early elective deliveries of babies by more than 60 percent. Because early deliveries increase the risk a newborn will require neonatal intensive care admission and also increase the risk of later developmental problems, this kind of reduction has very real benefit.

Additionally, participating hospitals reported pressure sore instances were reduced by more than half. These painful and often deadly infections result in thousands of fatalities each year. The report of such a dramatic decline is significant.

Continuing Problems in Boston

Administrators with the Lehman center note changes in the way data is collected and reported make it tough to make a definitive assertion on whether patient safety has stalled or is improving.

A RAND Health report, consisting of extensive data and interviews with more than 40 specialists, indicate major problems continue to persist in things like:

  • Wrong-side surgeries (i.e., mistakenly operating on the right arm instead of the left);
  • Falls among elderly patients
  • Mistakes with medication

While researchers believe efforts to convert paper records to electronic files could help vastly reduce some of these issues, not enough places are using them, and even those that do don't have systems that effectively communicate with one another. That puts patients at serious risk of harm as well.

What is especially troubling, though, is the public perception of these problems. With so many people suffering ill effects, researchers at Harvard still found two-thirds of respondents did not consider medical errors to be a major problem. Patient safety advocates opine people are intimidated by the medical system and doubt their ability to judge the quality of care received or the negative impact of what happened.

We want to trust doctors and nurses and other health care providers. But when mistakes happen, the effects can be life-altering. Trust an experienced legal team to help you obtain just compensation.

If you have been injured by medical malpractice in Boston, call 1-800-WIN-WIN-1 or visit www.marksalomone.com for a free consultation.

Atty. Mark Bixby is a personal injury lawyer at the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone, serving Springfield and throughout Massachusetts. If you or a loved one has been injured, contact our law firm today.

Atty. Mark Bixby