Sunday, April 25, 2004

Medical errors are leading cause of U.S. hospital deaths

By Dr. Samuel Cramer
Guest columnist

While Americans enjoy the highest-quality medical care in the world, the statistics are still astounding. The Institute of Medicine's 1999 report, "To Err Is Human," put the entire health-care community on high alert. It told us that medical errors in hospitals account for between 48,000 and 98,000 deaths per year in the United States.

Even at the lowest estimates, medical errors are the leading cause of death in this country, ahead of breast cancer, AIDS or motor vehicle accidents. Medical errors can occur in the hospital, doctor's office, nursing home, or as a result of drug interactions.

Because of the seriousness of the issue, we as a nation must build upon the groundwork set in place by the National Patient Safety Foundation, which focuses on raising public awareness and fostering communication among all about patient safety.

Public education effort

This year's public awareness campaign theme, "Patient Safety: The Power of Partnership," fits well with Anthem's belief that collaboration among hospitals, physicians and health plans is key to high quality, patient-centered and safe care.

The intensive educational effort, spurred by Patient Safety Awareness Week celebrated for the third straight year in March, aims to educate patients and families about the steps being taken to reduce medical and pharmaceutical errors and prevent errors at hospitals where they receive care. Beyond the educational component, however, personal involvement is crucial to the success of this and any national effort.

As a health benefits company, Anthem continues to implement many programs developed with hospitals and physicians in our networks. These collaborations are based on a shared philosophy: Improving patient care and safety while reducing medical errors will save lives and reduce hospital complications such as infection.

One of the ways to reduce medical errors is to improve quality. The key to Anthem's efforts has been our collaboration with physicians and hospitals on extensive quality programs and recent efforts to link their reimbursement, in part, to how they perform against quality measures. Today, almost 400 hospitals are in our quality programs, many of whom are reimbursed for their performance based on quality measures, as are 14,000 network physicians. Both types of programs benefit Anthem members and non-members alike.

Many areas of change

Other areas for improvement in collaboration with health professionals include redesigning processes of care in hospitals and other care settings; decreasing the wide variations in health care practice; and using clinical and drug information to help physicians provide safe, effective therapies to their patients.

United efforts to improve patient safety are crucial to the health care community's ability to continue offering Americans the highest-quality medical care in the world.

For more information on patient safety, visit www.npsf.org or www.anthem.com, where you will find a variety of resources on the topic, including managing your medications, hospital safety, an online quiz and links to national organizations focusing on this issue.

10 things patients can do to help

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, there are 10 things you can do to participate effectively in the delivery of health care:

• Be an active member of your own health care team.

• Remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands.

• Take a list of your medications to your doctor, including aspirin and vitamins.

• Make sure you can read you doctor's prescription. If you can't, the pharmacist may not be able to either.

• Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the proper dosage of your medication; medicine labels can be hard to understand.

• Tell your doctor or nurse of any allergies you have.

• Take precautions in the hospital. Don't let anyone give you medications without first checking your hospital ID bracelet.

• Ask your surgeon what will be done during surgery and find out if the surgeon has experience with this procedure.

• Find out how many of these procedures have been performed at the specific hospital.

• Speak up if you have any questions, and ask a family member or friend to be your advocate during office visits.

Dr. Samuel Cramer is medical director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

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