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Medical Injuries Cause Extra Costs, Longer Hospital Stays and Billions

USA Today reported on a study published in the October 8, 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), that shows that nationwide, injuries due to medical error in hospitals result in about 2.4 million extra days in the hospital and $9.3 billion in extra charges for longer stays and more care. The study also noted that more than 32,000 Americans each year die as a result of such errors.

The researchers pored over records from 994 hospitals in 28 states, a sample that represented about 20% of the nation's hospitals. The team focused on 18 specific injuries that can be caused by human error and added up the burden, including extra hospital time and added costs. Study author, Chunliu Zhan of the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, concluded, "Some injuries incurred during hospitalization pose a significant threat to patients and costs to society, but the impact of such injury is highly variable."

The number one problem researchers found was potentially deadly infections of the bloodstream (sepsis) that can crop up after surgery. The study showed that people who got such infections had a 22% higher risk of dying. Those that did survive on average had to stay an extra 11 days and had a hospital bill that was $58,000 higher than people who didn't get an infection. Almost 22 percent of patients who suffered post-surgery sepsis died of the infection. Additionally, victims of these errors often have to pick up some fraction of the cost of the extra-long hospital stay, thus adding financial problems to their health problems.

Another common problem that researchers uncovered was the reopening of a wound after surgery. This usually happened because of an infection. With this injury patients often spent 10 extra days in the hospital and had additional hospital charges of $40,000. The third problem listed in the study was leaving a medical instrument or sponge in a patient's body. This is a mistake that rarely kills the patient but usually leads to two extra hospital days and an average of $13,000 in additional charges.

Chief researcher, Dr. Zhan says the surgical infections often occur when staff members don't wash their hands or their instruments properly. "This study gives us the first direct evidence that medical injuries pose a real threat to the American public and increase the costs of health care," said Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Director, Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D. "The nation's hospitals can use this information to enhance the efforts they already are taking to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety."