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WI Advocate: Medical Errors Take a Horrendous Toll

January 3, 2011

MILWAUKEE, Wis. - Every year, 180,000 Americans die because of medical errors, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It also finds that the number of deaths has been steadily increasing for the past 10 years.

Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, says this situation is unacceptable.

"To put this in perspective, it's like a jumbo-jet crashing every day. That's the number of medical errors that kill people every day in the United States."

Kraig points out that people don't usually see the big picture when it comes to fatal medical mistakes.

"These are happening all over the country, one by one, so we don't connect them the same way we do with a disaster like a plane going down or a train crash, but the magnitude is that great."

To address the problem, we need to set up a good system with incentives and clear coordination, Kraig says.

"A lot of errors take place because different providers, different specialists, are not communicating with each other, and there isn't good overall coordination. This all needs to change. We need to do it by having very hard incentives, where payments are specifically related to quality."

He says a study published in the "New England Journal of Medicine" concluded that previous hospital quality initiatives over the past decade have not made progress in reducing medical errors. That voluntary approach is not working, Kraig acknowledges.

"You have a problem where you have a very fragmented health care system in this country, where there isn't very good coordination, and so mistakes are constantly being made. Obviously, most of them aren't life-threatening, but enough mistakes are made that you actually have 180,000 people a year dying from medical errors."

In addition to the human toll, Kraig says medical errors cost the nation's taxpayers more than $4 billion a year in additional Medicare payments.

The full report is available at www.nejm.org.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI