The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hospitals are killing tens of thousands fewer people

Hospitals experienced an "unprecedented" drop in medical errors in recent years, a new government report claims. (Photo by Flicker user <a href="" target="_blank">Jeff Kubina</a> , used under a Creative Commons license)

Wide-ranging efforts to make hospital care safer have resulted in an estimated 50,000 fewer patients dying because of avoidable errors in the past three years, according to a new report presented by government and industry officials on Tuesday.

Hospitals reported 1.3 million fewer hospital-acquired infections in all between 2011-2013 compared to the rate of mistakes that hospitals made in 2010, according to the report from the Department of Health and Human Services. That represented a 17 percent drop in hospital errors from 2010, but about 12 percent of all hospitalizations as of 2013 still experienced an adverse event during the course of care.

The reduction of these avoidable incidents — such as falls, pressure ulcers, adverse drug events and more — meant $12 billion in savings to the health-care system between 2011 and 2013, according to HHS.

A widely cited Institute of Medicine report from 1999 estimated that hospital errors kill as many as an estimated 98,000 people each year — which critics often point out is the equivalent of two fully packed 737s crashing each day. Government officials said they couldn't exactly explain what's behind the drop in hospital errors, but they gave broad credit to increasing public and private efforts to reduce patient harm.

They pointed to new financial incentives for hospitals to keep patients healthier — such as a Medicare penalty on providers that experience excessive readmissions — and a three-year-old public-private initiative, known as the Partnership for Patients, designed to spread best practices for making hospital care safer. Some health insurers in recent years have also stopped paying for hospitals' mistakes.

"We made major investments in quality improvements," said a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services senior official on Monday. "We made investments in the research and understanding of patient safety."

Administration and hospital industry officials spoke on background during a Monday press call to review the report ahead of its release. HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell will present the report findings to an industry conference in Baltimore on Tuesday.

Fewer adverse drug events and pressure ulcers accounted for about two-thirds of the drop in hospital mistakes over the past four years, according to the HHS report. About $8 billion of the described $12 billion savings occurred in just 2013, the report said.

Federal efforts cited by administration officials have been subject of some criticism. Health-care researchers, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine this past summer, said the lack of transparency surrounding the Partnership for Patients initiative made it "difficult to determine whether the program improved care." And critics say safety-net hospitals, who provide care for the nation's most vulnerable patients, have been unfairly hurt by new financial penalties for high readmission rates.

HHS officials said they did not have "consistent data" before 2010, which they said makes it difficult to offer a direct comparison to the years preceding the period covered by Tuesday's report. Still, government and hospital officials said the findings marked an "unprecedented" shift for the hospital industry.

"The improvements we've seen in the last two years seem much larger than anything that's been published by any researchers" during prior years, said a senior HHS official.