Obama administration announces major decline in medical errors

Obama administration announces major decline in medical errors
Following a neck surgery, Spencer Sullivan of Laguna Hills received too much pain medication and was not monitored accurately, according to California nursing board records. Once a nurse himself, Spencer, 48, was rendered a quadriplegic requiring round-the-clock care. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Infections and other medical errors that harm patients in hospitals have declined significantly, the Obama administration said Tuesday, hailing the progress as a sign that new efforts to improve patients' safety are bearing fruit.

From 2010 to 2013, so-called hospital-acquired conditions declined 17%, according to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services.


Administration officials said the declines resulted in about 50,000 fewer deaths and savings of some $12 billion.

"Today's results are welcome news for patients and their families," said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. "These data represent significant progress in improving the quality of care that patients receive while spending our healthcare dollars more wisely. HHS will work with partners across the country to continue to build on this progress."

The improvement initiative, which the administration kicked off in 2011 with funding from the Affordable Care Act, was driven by growing concern about widespread quality problems in U.S. healthcare.

According to one study published in the journal Health Affairs, an estimated 1 in 3 hospital patients experienced an "adverse event" such as receiving the wrong medication, acquiring an infection or getting the wrong surgical procedure.

Although top-performing institutions across the country dramatically reduced errors, many healthcare experts and patient advocates said progress was too slow nationwide.

Over the last several years, hospitals have worked with the federal government, patient advocates and others to reduce errors, spurred in part by new financial incentives designed to reward quality and cut down on costly hospital readmissions.

Administration officials acknowledged that they could not definitively say whether the new initiatives explained the reductions.

But American Hospital Assn. Chief Executive Rich Umbdenstock hailed the declines and credited the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, for pushing hospitals to make needed improvements. "I want to thank CMS for having the vision to support this work," he said.

He noted that hospitals participating in the initiatives had cut early elective deliveries of babies by 61%. Early deliveries, which often put underweight newborns in neonatal intensive care units, heighten the risk of developmental problems later in life.

Umbdenstock said hospitals reduced instances of pressure sores by more than half, saving thousands of patients from painful and often deadly complications.

"We've been really working hard … and we have seen some terrific results," he said.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration effort, called the Partnership for Patients, has come under criticism from several leading quality improvement advocates, who have questioned how the administration is gathering data and evaluating the impact of the multibillion-dollar initiative.

"Weak study design and methods, combined with a lack of transparency and rigor in evaluation, make it difficult to determine whether the program improved care," Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins Medicine and Dr. Ashish K. Jha of the Harvard School of Public Health noted in a recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Twitter: @noamlevey