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HEALTH REPORT - Avoiding Medical Mistakes - 2004-08-24

Broadcast: August 25, 2004

This is Gwen Outen with the VOA Special English Health Report.

Five years ago, researchers estimated the number of deaths each year from medical mistakes in United States hospitals. The estimate was between forty-four thousand and ninety-eight thousand, or one in every two hundred patients.

The study called "To Err Is Human" came from the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences. Some experts called the estimates too high; others called them too low.

The report called for changes in hospital policies in an effort to reduce the chance for mistakes. The study called for another examination later this year to measure progress.

Health care experts say a number of reforms have yet to take place. But they say hospitals have made improvements. Some involve easy steps to avoid misunderstandings. If a patient needs an operation on the left leg, for example, the word "yes" might be written on that leg. The word "no" might be written on the other leg. Last month a hospital inspection group ordered that simple safety measures like these be required before all operations.

Another effort to reduce mistakes involves information sharing among hospitals to improve the treatment of newborn babies. Each hospital can search the collected information for the best way to perform an operation or treat different problems.

The Institute of Medicine report five years ago said most mistakes are caused by communication failures. These include mistakes with medicines. New medicines with similar names are part of the problem. Also, handwritten orders from doctors are often difficult to read.

There are efforts to increase the use of computers in hospitals to avoid such mistakes. The goal is make sure patients get the correct medicines and in the correct amounts. A computer can also help avoid other problems. For example, it can warn if a medicine will react dangerously with other drugs taken by the patient.

The flight industry has done a lot of work to reduce mistakes. This includes training pilots about the importance of teamwork. But safety experts say teamwork is not the only solution. Efforts are also made to change systems where misunderstandings and mistakes can easily happen.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Paul Thompson. This is Gwen Outen.