Patient safety still not top priority for hospitals

October 1, 2009

To Err Is Human challenged the medical community to cut in half within five years the "shocking" number of people who die from medical errors. Yet a decade later, the rate of medical error is actually increasing, according to federal analysts.

To Err Is Human, a highly publicized federal report released in 1999, challenged the medical community to cut in half within five years the "shocking" number of people who die from medical errors. Yet a decade later, the rate of medical error is actually increasing, according to federal analysts. An article in the Connecticut Post (8/9/2009) reports that a national investigation by Hearst Newspapers found that the medical community, the federal government, and most states have overwhelmingly failed to take the effective steps outlined in To Err Is Human. Though some states have put regulations in place, hospitals often ignore the rules without penalty, the investigation found. In another example of unconcern about safety concerns, only 20% of more than 1,400 hospitals surveyed in New York, California, Texas, Washington, and Connecticut are participating in two national safety campaigns begun in recent years.

Some of the authors of To Err Is Human attribute the report's failure to spur reforms to a lack of political leadership and the health care lobby's vested interest in maintaining business as usual, especially the secrecy surrounding dangerous medical errors. Indeed, though the report called for a mandatory nationwide reporting system for medical errors, the system never materialized. President Clinton's plan to institute such a system met vehement opposition from the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Hospital Association (AHA). Now AMA officials say their organization supports voluntary reporting, and the AHA advocates disclosing mistakes to the families of victims of medical errors.

To Err Is Human also encouraged states to require medical error reporting, but only 20 states and the District of Columbia have done so. And even in these jurisdictions it appears that only a tiny percentage of hospitals report their mistakes. Similarly, though the report said the public "has the right to be informed about unsafe conditions," 45 states plus the District of Columbia don't provide hospital-specific information, either because they don't allow access to it or because they don't collect the data. To Err Is Human also recommended: