20/20 on the Vanishing American Hospital

Most Americans are born in hospitals. Hospitals also provide care during many other intimate and extraordinary circumstances in our lives – serious injuries, severe sickness and mental breakdown. Hospitals are also, by and large where we go to die.

As such, hospitals serve as a cornerstone of our communities and our very existence.

According to the American Hospital Association, there are 5,754 registered hospitals in the U.S. In 2011, almost 37 million people were admitted to a hospital in the U.S. – that’s more than 1:10 people.

Yet despite all this history, hospitals are in the midst of massive and disruptive change.

Even knowing this, SRxA’s Word on Health was shocked to read an article suggesting that by 2020 one in three hospitals will close or reorganize into an entirely different type of health care service provider.

Writing on KevinMD.com, a leading physician voice blog, authors David Houle and Jonathan Fleece suggest that that there are four significant forces and factors are driving this inevitable and historical shift.

First, America must bring down its crippling health care costs. The average American worker costs their employer $12,000 annually for health care benefits and this figure is increasing more than 10 percent every year. U.S. businesses cannot compete in a globally competitive market place at this level of spending. Federal and state budgets are getting crushed by the costs of health care entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. Given this cost problem, hospitals are vulnerable as they are generally regarded as the most expensive part of the delivery system for health care in America.

Second, statistically speaking hospitals are just about the most dangerous places to be in the United States. Three times as many people die every year due to medical errors in hospitals as die on our highways — 100,000 deaths compared to 34,000.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that nearly 100,000 people die annually in hospitals from medical errors. Of this group, 80,000 die from hospital acquired infections, many of which can be prevented. Given the above number of admissions that means that 1 out of every 370 people admitted to a hospital dies due to medical errors.

In other words, hospitals are very dangerous places.  It would take about 200 747 airplanes to crash annually to equal 100,000 preventable deaths. Imagine the American outcry if one 747 crashed every day for 200 consecutive days in the U.S. The airlines would stand before the nation and the world in disgrace.

Currently in our non-transparent health care delivery system, Americans have no way of knowing which hospitals are the most dangerous. We simply take uninformed chances with our lives at stake.

Third, hospital customer care is abysmal. Recent studies reveal that the average wait time in American hospital emergency rooms is approximately 4 hours. Name one other business where Americans would tolerate this low level of value and service.

Fourth, health care reform will make connectivity, electronic medical records, and transparency commonplace in health care. This means that in several years, and certainly before 2020, any American considering a hospital stay will simply go on-line to compare hospitals relative to infection rates, degrees of surgical success, and many other metrics. Isn’t this what we do in America, comparison shop? Our health is our greatest and most important asset. Would we not want to compare performance relative to any health and medical care the way we compare roofers or carpet installers? Inevitably when we are able to do this, hospitals will be driven by quality, service, and cost — all of which will be necessary to compete.

So hospitals are about to enter the open competitive marketplace. And as we know there will be winners and losers.  According to Houle and Fleece a third of today’s hospitals will fall into the latter category.

Will your hospital be among them?  Let us know what you think.

Hospital errors affect 1:3 patients

How common are hospital errors?

A shocking new study suggests that the number of “adverse events” befalling patients in U.S. hospitals may be 10 times higher than previous estimates.

If the authors are correct, this would mean that medical mistakes affect one in three people hospitalized  in the US. The study, published in the journal Health Affairs involved a review of almost 800 patient charts at three U.S. hospitals. Using a review technique known as the “global trigger tool,”  researchers detected a whopping 354 adverse events. Scarier still,  that figure might actually understate the enormity of the problem as it was based on potentially incomplete medical records rather than on direct observation in real time.

Dr. David C. Classen of the University of Utah believes his study gives a more reliable tally of hospital errors than other studies, including a 1999 landmark study from the Institute of Medicine entitled To Err is Human showing that hospital errors caused up to 98,000 Americans each year.

So what sorts of events were uncovered in the new review? According to Classen, there were three big ones:

The question many are now asking: is the new estimate accurate?

It is hard to know that to make of the trigger tool,” admits Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, a Professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Departments of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, and Surgery) and Medical Director for the Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care.

However, “Far too many patients suffer preventable harm in the U.S.” he added.

Other recent studies appear to confirm Classen’s findings.

Earlier this month the US government released data for the first time, showing how often patients are injured by certain medical errors in hospitals.  However, only eight types of serious, preventable errors were included in the comparison.

They were: air in the bloodstream, falls, bedsores, transfusions with the wrong blood type, urinary tract infections, blood infections, uncontrolled blood-sugar levels and foreign objects left in the body after surgery.

Other serious events, including wrong-site surgeries and medication errors, were not included.

And late last year, the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said 180,000 Medicare recipients die each year from hospital mistakes. That’s more people than are killed every year in car crashes, or from diabetes or pneumonia.

Without doubt, health care has improved over the past decade, but it’s clear that there is still a great deal of work to do in order to achieve a health care system that safe, effective, patient-centered, efficient, timely, and devoid of disparities based on race or ethnicity.

Until then, SRxA’s Word on Health advises that if you think something is amiss or wrong with your hospital care, speak up.

Kiss and Tell?

About 300 years ago, the English author Alexander Pope famously wrote “To err is human, to forgive is divine.

New research from the University of Illinois, Chicago concurs.  According to a study published in the November issue of Medical Care, people who believe their doctor or hospital would inform them if a medical error occurred are far more forgiving than those who doubt their health care provider would disclose the error.

A medical error is defined as a preventable adverse effect of care, whether or not it is evident or harmful to the patient. This might include an inaccurate or incomplete  diagnosis or treatment of a disease, injury or other ailment. Medical errors are one of the nation’s leading causes of death and injury and cost the US approximately $10 billion annually.  The Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 300,000 patients are victims of medical errors, of which maybe as many as 200,000 people die.

In the new study, researchers surveyed a representative sample of Illinois residents regarding medical errors. About 40% of participants either had personal experience with medical errors, or had a close friend or family member who had been affected by an error.

Based on a hypothetical scenario, just 10% of survey respondents believed their physicians would be “very likely” to tell them if a medical error occurred. Yet, only a quarter said they would file a medical malpractice lawsuit if they were told about a medical error.

Respondents who trusted their doctor to disclose medical errors were no more (or less) likely to say they would sue. This was so even in a scenario where the health care provider offered to correct the problem through free additional medical treatment, and possibly a financial settlement.

However, people who trusted their health care provider to inform them about the error were more forgiving. Of the respondents who were most confident that their doctor or hospital would disclose the error, more than 60 percent said they would still recommend the provider, despite the error.

In contrast, only 30% of those who were skeptical about disclosure would continue to recommend the doctor or hospital.

The researchers found that although disclosure of medical errors is strongly preferred by patients, the most common policy is to “deny and defend” when errors occur because providers fear that it will trigger lawsuits and jeopardize their reputation.

The results show that patients perceived beliefs have a significant impact on their behavior. Patients who trust their providers to disclose errors may be no less likely to sue, but appear more likely to forgive. Conversely, patients who are most skeptical about disclosure may view their health care provider with “suspicion and frustration.”

Clearly when it comes to medical screw-ups, honesty is the best policy.