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Study Shows Continued Patient Safety Issues at North Carolina Hospitals

A recently released study of North Carolina hospitals revealed that no significant improvements in patient safety have taken place from 2002 to 2007.

Conducted by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in conjunction with Stanford University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, the study reviewed over 2,300 randomly selected medical charts from hospital admissions between January 2002 and December 2007 at 10 North Carolina hospitals.

Researchers found instances of harm to patients in 25 percent of the reviewed cases. Over 80 percent of those harms were found to be “temporary,” but still often led to longer hospital stays or were serious enough to require intervention. Temporary patient harms include ailments such as urinary tract infections from prolonged catheter use or minor infections after surgery.

Most of the medical malpractice instances – 63 percent of harm to patients – were preventable. Study author and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford, Dr. Paul Sharek, noted that, as with other medical studies, “the great majority of medically induced harms in inpatient settings are minor or reversible.”

But some patients did suffer permanent, more serious harms due to hospital negligence: 50 patients were placed in life-threatening circumstances, 17 had permanent harm and 14 died due to medical errors.

Room for Improvement and Reduction of Medical Errors

Published in the November 25, 2010, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers were a bit surprised by the results: that the number of patients harmed did not decrease during the period given that North Carolina is a state very engaged in patient safety.

Researchers provided several possible explanations for why the rate of harm did not decrease during the five-year span:

  • Slow development of best practices. Studies examining patient safety are still relatively new, so it is unclear what efforts are most effective in improving patient care. Many steps are being taken to improve care, but there is often not enough evidence yet to show these steps actually reduce patient harm.
  • Implementation of improvements takes time. Many of the hospitals likely implemented best practices during that time period, but probably had not seen the results of those efforts before 2007.
  • Limited financial resources. Putting into place new technologies focused on patient safety – such as electronic medical record systems and computerized physician work-order systems – requires funding. Budgets have to be stretched to accommodate and that often takes several years.

Greater adoption of hospital best practices and safety measures, such as implementation of electronic medical records, will likely help decrease medical negligence, but it will take time. “Our findings are a call to action for the health-care system. We need a nationwide strategy for reducing harm from medical care,” said Dr. Sharek.

Sources: Study of 10 other hospitals found no reduction in adverse medical events over 6 years;Study: N.C. hospitals fail to improve patient safety