Infections, surgical mistakes, and other medical harm contribute to the deaths of 180,000 hospital patients a year, according to projections based on a 2010 report from the Department of Health and Human Services. Another 1.4 million are seriously hurt by their hospital care. And those figures apply only to Medicare patients. What happens to other people is less clear because most hospital errors go unreported and hospitals report on only a fraction of things that can go wrong.
"There is an epidemic of health-care harm," says Rosemary Gibson, a patient-safety advocate and author. More than 2.25 million Americans will probably die from medical harm in this decade, she says. "That's like wiping out the entire populations of North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It's a man-made disaster."
Some hospitals have responded to the crisis with safety initiatives such as electronic prescribing to help prevent drug errors and checklists to prevent infections, with some success. Rates of central-line bloodstream infections, for example, have dropped by 32 percent since 2008, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But more needs to be done. "Hospitals haven't given safety the attention it deserves," says Peter Pronovost, M.D., senior vice president for patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. Nor has the government, he says. "Medical harm is probably one of the three leading causes of death in the U.S., but the government doesn't adequately track it as it does deaths from automobiles, plane crashes, and cancer. It's appalling."
That lack of information not only makes it difficult to define the extent of the problem but also makes it challenging for patients to know about the safety of the hospitals in their communities.
To address that problem, Consumer Reports
has for the first time rated hospitals for safety, using the most current data available to us at the time of our analysis. It includes information from government and independent sources on 1,159 hospitals in 44 states. For this article, we also interviewed patients, physicians, hospital administrators, and safety experts; reviewed medical literature; and looked at hospital inspections and investigations.
Still, the Ratings include only 18 percent of U.S. hospitals because data on patient harm still isn't reported fully or consistently nationwide. "Hospitals that volunteer safety information, regardless of their score, deserve credit, since the first step in safety is accountability," says John Santa, M.D., director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. "But the fact that consumers can't get a full picture of most hospitals in the U.S. underscores the need for more public reporting."
Despite that limitation, the safety Ratings provide a unique way to compare hospitals in your community. And they yield important insights into the state of hospital safety nationwide-and what you need to do to protect yourself, or someone you care for, when entering a hospital.
Click here to find Ratings of hospitals nationwide (available to subscribers). The Ratings include those hospitals for which we have a safety score, as well as some information on performance for more than 3,000 other hospitals.
Complete Ratings and recommendations on all kinds of products, including appliances, cars & trucks, and electronic gear, are available on Consumer Reports' website. Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org.
(Copyright © 2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. All Rights Reserved.)