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Published: Wednesday, 8/3/2005

Tracking medical mistakes

SOME legislation can't become law soon enough. Count as one a measure that allows health-care professionals to report information about medical errors without fearing it will be used against them in lawsuits or disciplinary proceedings.

President Bush and Congress had no quarrel about what needed to be done to encourage more reporting and resolution of medical mistakes and health-care hazards - and did it. A bill with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate was recently signed into law by the President. It establishes a national system designed to lessen the considerable toll medical errors take on patients.

Those mistakes, from wrong medication to lax sanitary practices, cause an estimated 40,000 to 98,000 preventable deaths a year. Compare that to highway accidents that claimed roughly 42,800 lives last year.

Health-care officials who witness medical mistreatment of patients have frequently been reluctant to come forward with the information for fear of legal or professional repercussions. But the establishment of a national network to track, analyze, and make recommendations about reported medical errors allows the information forwarded to be treated as strictly confidential.

Under the bill, the Department of Health and Human Services would certify patient safety organizations-those could be government agencies or private professional groups- to collect information voluntarily provided by medical sources that could adversely affect patient care.

The groups, protecting the anonymity of the sources, would try to pinpoint the genesis of the problems, determine whether they amount to a trend, and suggest ways to improve the situation. The safety organizations would also be able to contact hospitals about a problem or release safety alerts. The reports submitted by health care providers-minus identifying details- would be collected in a national database for additional review.

Over the next five years the Congressional Budget Office estimates operation of the data collection system will cost about $58 million. But if the health network frees more medical professionals to notify concerned parties about medical mistakes in time to stop harmful trends from developing, the system will be worth every penny.

It is estimated that more than 250 Americans die each day from medical errors. The mistakes take lives, cost money, and are largely preventable, said Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown. "We know medical errors are under-reported," he added. "This legislation [now law] is designed to overcome that obstacle."

And it couldn't happen soon enough.



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