An average of 195,000 Americans died annually in 2000, 2001 and 2002 because of potentially preventable, in-hospital medical errors, according to a study of 37 million patient records conducted by HealthGrades, a healthcare quality company.

The "HealthGrades Patient Safety in American Hospitals" looked at the mortality and economic impact of medical errors and injuries that occurred during Medicare hospital admissions nationwide from 2000 to 2002.

The number of deaths was nearly double that found iin the 1999 Institute of Medicine study To Err is Human, with an associated cost of more than $6 billion per year. At the time the study was issued, the IOM said the rate of in-hospital deaths should be considered a national epidemic.

The latest study applied the mortality and economic impact models developed by Dr. Chunliu Zhan and Dr. Marlene R. Miller in a research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in October of 2003.

Whereas the IOM study extrapolated national findings based on data from three states, Zhan and Miller looked at 7.5 million patient records from 28 states over one year, HealthGrades looked at three years of Medicare data in all 50 states and D.C. This Medicare population represented approximately 45 percent of all hospital admissions (excluding obstetric patients) in the U.S. from 2000 to 2002.

The HealthGrades study shows that the IOM report may have underestimated the number of deaths due to medical errors, and, moreover, that there is little evidence that patient safety has improved in the last five years, said Dr. Samantha Collier, HealthGrades vice president of medical affairs.

The equivalent of 390 jumbo jets full of people are dying each year due to likely preventable, in-hospital medical errors, making this one of the leading killers in the U.S., Collier said.

The HealthGrades study was released in conjunction with the companys first annual "Distinguished Hospital Award for Patient Safety," which honors hospitals with the best records of patient safety. Eighty-eight hospitals in 23 states were given the award for having the nations lowest patient-safety incidence rates. A list of winners can be found at www.healthgrades.com.

HealthGrades examined 16 of the 20 patient-safety indicators defined by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) from bedsores to post-operative sepsis omitting four obstetrics-related incidents not represented in the Medicare data used in the study.

Of these sixteen, the mortality associated with two, failure to rescue and death in low risk hospital admissions, accounted for the majority of deaths that were associated with these patient safety incidents. These two categories of patients were not evaluated in the IOM or JAMA analyses, accounting for the variation in the number of annual deaths attributable to medical errors. However, the magnitude of the problem is evident in all three studies.

If we could focus our efforts on just four key areas failure to rescue, bed sores, postoperative sepsis, and postoperative pulmonary embolism and reduce these incidents by just 20 percent, we could save 39,000 people from dying every year, said Dr. Collier.

Study Highlights

Among the findings:

• About 1.14 million patient-safety incidents occurred among the 37 million hospitalizations in the Medicare population over the years 2000-2002.

• Of the total 323,993 deaths among Medicare patients in those years who developed one or more patient-safety incidents, 263,864, or 81 percent, of these deaths were directly attributable to the incident(s).

• One in every four Medicare patients who were hospitalized from 2000 to 2002 and experienced a patient-safety incident died.

• The 16 patient-safety incidents accounted for $8.54 billion in excess in-patient costs to the Medicare system over the three years studied. Extrapolated to the entire U.S., an extra $19 billion was spent and more than 575,000 preventable deaths occurred from 2000 to 2002.

• Patient-safety incidents with the highest rates per 1,000 hospitalizations were failure to rescue, decubitus ulcer and postoperative sepsis, which accounted for almost 60 percent of all patient-safety incidents that occurred.

• Overall, the best performing hospitals (hospitals that had the lowest overall patient safety incident rates of all hospitals studied, defined as the top 7.5 percent of all hospitals studied) had five fewer deaths per 1000 hospitalizations compared to the bottom 10th percentile of hospitals. This significant mortality difference is attributable to fewer patient-safety incidents at the best performing hospitals.

• Fewer patient safety incidents in the best performing hospitals resulted in a lower cost of $740,337 per 1,000 hospitalizations as compared to the bottom 10th percentile of hospitals.