National patient safety board could prevent deaths from medical errors

Despite recent improvements in medical care and tracking, hospital and medical errors still lead to as many as 400,000 deaths each year. A recent government report noted that hospital-acquired conditions have dropped 17 percent between 2011 and 2013, saving as many as 50,000 lives. However, medical errors remain the third leading cause of death in the United States – which means that more work remains to be done.

What’s the next step in preventing injury and death from medical errors? Patient safety advocate John T. James, Ph.D., asserts that the answer is clear: Medical facilities should improve access to medical records, increase accountability, and create a national patient safety board.

In a recent interview with West Health, James, who lost his son to a preventable medical error, explains that increased evaluation of health-care workers – both by patients and by their own peers – would improve safety by reducing the number of medical errors and allowing hospitals and clinics to identify “problem areas” more quickly.

Making the results of these surveys public, James says, could help harness market forces to help patients make better choices and push underperforming medical facilities to improve the quality and accuracy of the care they provide.

But the number one thing James recommends is action on the federal level: the creation of a national patient safety board.

“Overall, government agencies, including Congress, have not been assertive in addressing the problem,” James said in his West Health interview. Although he notes that the Affordable Care Act has made some changes, he also points out that it has done so “without changing the fundamental culture that permits errors to continue.”

A national patient safety board could change that culture, James says. He recommends a board modeled on agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), both of which have had demonstrable success in reducing the number of injuries and deaths inflicted by traffic accidents and defective products, respectively. Its job would be to “monitor, track, and analyze medical errors, and where appropriate, enforce changes” in a transparent, neutral fashion – much as the NTSB and CPSC do in their specialized areas.

By creating a national patient safety board, James says, the culture of silence surrounding medical errors would disappear. Injury rates and causes would become public knowledge, and patients would have a reliable source of information when making choices about their care. Violations of patient safety rights would be easier to identify, prevent and redress in court when negligence or recklessness was a factor leading to the harm caused.

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