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In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report called To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System that brought to light the issue of hospital patients dying from medical errors; at the time is was guesstimated to be as great as 98,000 deaths per year in the U.S. The report and subsequent news coverage also brought much attention to the problem, including the interest of Congress—who vowed to fix the problem.

Yet today, one new study by researchers at John Hopkins Medicine puts the number closer to 250,000 as to how many Americans die each year from medical errors. A 2013 estimate published in the Journal of Patient Safety claimed that the figure could actually exceed 400,000. Often the result of gross negligence or poor judgement, medical errors are small mistakes that can bring about big problems or even death. In fact, many in the healthcare industry refer to them as “nevers” (a topic I discuss at length in another blog), because they should never have happened under any circumstances.

Yet happen they do, often causing long-lasting health issues and complications. What often compounds the problem is that it’s often not clear as to who’s responsible for such errors. Doctors will point out that most any procedure carries its fair share of risk—not everyone who enters a hospital leaves cured. It stands to reason that when the medical error is due to negligence, the patient may pursue a malpractice lawsuit—but what about when there is no clear source of fault or wrongdoing?

Some hospitals and health systems strive to provide a level of transparency in such situations—if the error was preventable, they provide follow-up care for free—yet, often it is insurance or the individual who must pay for unexpected treatments. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the cost for a privately insured patient averages 2.3 times more than expected when unseen complications arise. To put it in perspective, a routine surgery that was to cost $17,000 could quickly balloon to $56,000 due to medical-error-induced corrective measures.

The true economic cost of medical errors in the U.S. was evaluated in 2010 by a Milliman study (the most recent year for such research) that determined we spend about $19.5 billion for additional patient care, prescriptions and other ancillary services in response to unplanned medical errors. It also adjusted for increased mortality rates and lost days of work. Today, many believe the number could be as high as $29 billion, but it is hard to determine such a number when the underlying cause [a medical error] is often misclassified or not reported at all.

Currently there are no regulations as to how doctors and hospitals should handle additional costs due to a medical error when there is not an obvious case of malpractice. As reported by the Washington Post, many organizations such as the American Medical Association, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and even Leapfrog—a national nonprofit dedicated to higher levels of quality and safety within the healthcare industry that’s known for its yearly hospital ratings report—are pushing for a nationwide policy that addresses how to handle such cases. Until such occurs, it is recommended that you check with your insurer to best understand their policy on medical errors and consider a different provider if you’re not satisfied with the guidelines they have in place.

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