Half of all injuries, disabilities and even deaths that occur as a result of medical errors could be prevented, research suggests.

A review of 70 studies found 12 per cent of patients all over the world experience some degree of ‘harm’ during their treatment.  

Half of these cases – six per cent of patients – could have been prevented by improved diagnosis, surgical techniques or infection prevention, the review found.

In these avoidable incidents, 12 per cent of patients went on to suffer permanent disability or even death.

As well as affecting patient safety, preventable harm is also costly. In the US alone, accidental incidents set healthcare providers back £7.5bn ($9.3bn) a year. 

Half of all injuries that occur as a result of medical errors could be prevented (stock image)

Half of all injuries that occur as a result of medical errors could be prevented (stock image)

The study review was carried out by the University of Manchester and led by Dr Maria Panagioti, a senior lecturer in the division of population health, health services research & primary care.

Coming to harm during treatment is a ‘leading cause of morbidity and mortality internationally,’ the researchers wrote in The BMJ.

This is defined as damage that occurs during the ‘provision of healthcare, rather than an underlying disease or injury, and may be physical, social or psychological.’

The health burden of this harm has even been likened to that of chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis and cancer.

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Surgical items left in the bodies of patients can cause sepsis and even death. 

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In less severe cases, people may experience pain, discomfort and bloating.

In the US, up to 6,000 surgical instruments are left inside patients’ bodies every year. Of which, around 70 per cent are sponges and the remainder items such as clamps. 

Dr Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said: ‘In two-thirds of these cases, there [are] serious consequences.

‘In one case, a small sponge was left inside the brain of a patient that we studied, and the patient ended up having an infection and ultimately died.’

Such mistakes are considered so shockingly bad they are often referred to as ‘never events’, which also covers operating on the wrong patient or part of the body.

In 2004, the Joint Commission, a US-based nonprofit organisation, published the Universal Protocol, which provides guidelines on how to reduce such never events.

These recommendations include ensuring all medical equipment is accounted for at the end of every procedure, however, this can be challenging considering up to 100 sponges may be used in a single major operation.

Errors also often occur in stressful situations, when changes to the operation procedure happen suddenly or if there are a lot of distractions.

Dr Ana McKee, executive vice president and chief medical officer of the Joint Commission, told CNN: ‘If there’s music going on or side conversations or someone is on the phone, that does not meet the spirit of the Universal Protocol.’

Many hospitals in the US have switched to sponges and surgical tools with barcodes on them so they can be electronically tracked.

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It is also expensive, with around 10 to 15 per cent of health services’ costs going towards ‘healthcare-related patient harm’, the researchers wrote.  

In English hospitals, just six specific types of preventable harm cost the equivalent of more than 2,000 GPs’ salaries or 3,500 nurses’ annually.

Not all injuries that occur during treatment are avoidable. For instance, a patient may suffer a reaction to a drug even after its dose was carefully calculated.  

To uncover the true burden of preventable harm in healthcare, the researchers analysed 70 other studies.

These had a total of 337,025 patients and were carried out over a period spanning 19 years.

The studies measured accidents that occurred as ‘a direct result of the care dispensed rather than the patient’s underlying disease’.

Most defined patient harm as preventable if it had a clear cause and could be avoided in the future, such as through better drug management.  

Results revealed treatment-related harm affected 12 per cent of the studies’ participants. 

Of these, six per cent were deemed to be preventable.

The researchers therefore concluded ‘half of patient harm is preventable’.   

Almost half (49 per cent) of the cases were related to drug errors, while surgery ‘accidents’ made up of 23 per cent of incidences and infections 16 per cent, the New Scientist reported.  

Overall, half of the cases were classified as mild, while a third were moderate and 12 per cent severe. 

The harm generally occurred in surgical or intensive care units and was least likely to take place in obstetrics. 

The researchers claimed their results ‘affirm that preventable patient harm is a serious problem across medical care settings’. 

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This was supported by experts at the London School of Economics and Harvard Medical School in a linked editorial.

They said the review ‘serves as a reminder of the extent to which medical harm is prevalent across health systems, and, importantly, draws attention to how much is potentially preventable.’

The researchers stress, however, the studies varied in how they assessed harm, which may have affected the accuracy of their review’s results.

Future research should look at how to improve the assessment and recording of these events, they add. 



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