Aging Options

Health Alert: Preventable Medical Errors Kill 250,000 U.S. Patients Annually

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When most of us go to see our doctor, we don’t expect her or him to make preventable medical mistakes. After all, we count on our doctor to give us proper care, and to know us well enough to avoid preventable errors. That’s the level of trust most of us have in the health care system.

Given that fact, does it surprise you, like it did us, to read that preventable medical errors take the lives of a quarter million Americans every year? And that preventable medical errors are the nation’s third leading cause of death? Those eye-popping statistics come from this recent article from USA Today in which reporter Karen Weintraub outlines findings of a recent White House study showing just how serious the problem of medical mistakes is in America.

We’re glad this issue is getting top-level attention. We also think this article serves as a loud, clear warning to choose your physician carefully. Rajiv will have more to say on that topic at the end of the article.

Preventable Medical Errors Endanger Medicare Patients

One reason we wanted to bring you this report here on the Blog is that seniors are at particular risk.

We took a look at the White House report, and it paints a bleak picture, particularly for patients on Medicare. “Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff are passionate, dedicated professionals who care deeply for the patients in their care,” the report begins. “Nonetheless, dangerous and preventable events continue to occur at surprisingly high rates.”

Recent data, says the report, reveals that “Medicare patients suffer an adverse event in one out of four hospitalizations.”  Many of these result in what the report calls “catastrophic outcomes.” Most damning of all, says the report: “More than 40 percent of these events are determined to be due to preventable errors.”

Preventable Medical Errors: A National Priority

“Patient safety likely remains the nation’s third leading cause of death and addressing it needs to be a key national priority,” Weintraub writes, quoting a presidential panel whose report was issued this past week. This same panel had also released a companion report calling for improved use of data and heightened transparency surrounding patient safety. Another part of the strategy: the appointment of a national patient safety coordinator.

“Finally, we are putting patient safety at the top of the national agenda where it belongs,” says Leah Binder, who was not involved in the report but is president and CEO of The Leapfrog Group, which rates hospitals and other healthcare facilities on their safety. “For far too long we’ve overlooked it.”

Preventable Medical Errors May Top 250,000 Annually

According to a 2016 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, preventable medical errors kill 250,000 Americans per year, and Binder says that there’s no reason to think that the number has dropped in the years since then. In fact, it has likely increased during the spikes of the pandemic, when facilities and caregivers were overburdened. 

“We know how to prevent the errors and accidents that kill too many Americans,” Binder says. “We know how to fix it. It’s just having the will to fix it. This set of recommendations, if enacted, can get us there.”

Key Recommendations Stop Preventable Medical Errors

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology spent a year studying patient safety before releasing its report. The following recommendations—verbatim from Weintraub’s article—were provided in the report:

  • Establishing and maintain federal leadership for improving patient safety as a national priority;
  • Ensuring patients receive evidence-based approaches for preventing harm and addressing risks;
  • Partnering with patients, families and communities that are disproportionately affected by medical errors and substandard care; and
  • Accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies and highlight outstanding systems of safe care.

Preventable Medical Errors: “Not About Placing Blame”

“If airplanes were crashing, people would be universally outraged,” says Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale School of Medicine and a member of the working group, “but because medical errors tend to happen quietly to individuals, they tend to get ignored.”

Krumholz continued to explain that improving safety is not about blaming individuals or getting them to work harder, but about building better systems. To continue his example about airplanes, the aviation industry has spent decades streamlining their system of checklists, accountability, and early interventions to make air travel much safer. But in health care, “we still have failed to create a system that’s very safe and highly reliable,” Krumholz says.

Preventable Medical Errors: Could Ego Play a Part?

Physician egos can’t be understated as a potential part of the problem, say many experts. “Pilots, like doctors, are used to being the heroes at the center of the action, but they long ago realized that they were dependent on strong teams, systems, feedback and instruments,” Weintraub writes. “It’s time for medicine to make the same shift.”

Krumholz adds, “This is a chance to say we need a reset. We need to institute the kind of initiatives that will ensure the safety of anyone who is seeking and receiving health care in this country.”

People of Color at Greater Risk from Medical Mistakes

Krumholz also explained that the issue health equity was a significant finding in the report. “When bad things happen in medicine, they tend to happen more often to people of color,” he says. “In helping everyone, we should be able to close the gaps that exist based on the color of your skin or your ethnicity, which shouldn’t have anything to do with your risk as a patient, but do.”

Binder’s focus has been on the requirement that each hospital list its rate of preventable infections, rather than allowing whole systems of hospitals to provide one figure across all of their facilities. “I don’t care about the infection rate of a corporation. I care about the infection rate of a hospital I’m about to trust my life to,” she says.

But the fact that the report puts patients and their families at the center of the discussion is a great encouragement to her. As Binder states, “Having a national patient safety team will make sure that patient safety at least has a seat at the table when major decisions are made about health care in this country.”

Rajiv’s Answer: Choose a Geriatrician as Your Primary Care Doc

We asked Rajiv Nagaich about this story, and he repeated a recommendation we’ve heard him make frequently: seniors need to pay special attention to the primary care physician they choose.

“I tell my clients and my radio listeners time and time again,” he states emphatically. “As you grow older, you need a doctor who really, truly understands the physiology of aging – and that means a geriatrician.”  These board-certified doctors, as Rajiv explains, specialize in the specialized category of geriatric medicine, and they’re trained to help you stay healthier longer.

“Your odds of better medical outcomes are dramatically improved if you have a geriatrician as quarterback of your medical team,” Rajiv urges. If you’d like to know more, contact us for a referral.

Breaking News: Rajiv’s New Book is Here!

We have big news! The long-awaited book by Rajiv Nagaich, called Your Retirement: Dream or Disaster, has been released and is now available to the public.  As a friend of AgingOptions, we know you’ll want to get your copy and spread the word.

You’ve heard Rajiv say it repeatedly: 70 percent of retirement plans will fail. If you know someone whose retirement turned into a nightmare when they were forced into a nursing home, went broke paying for care, or became a burden to their families – and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you – then this book is must-read.

Through stories, examples, and personal insights, Rajiv takes us along on his journey of expanding awareness about a problem that few are willing to talk about, yet it’s one that results in millions of Americans sleepwalking their way into their worst nightmares about aging. Rajiv lays bare the shortcomings of traditional retirement planning advice, exposes the biases many professionals have about what is best for older adults, and much more.

Rajiv then offers a solution: LifePlanning, his groundbreaking approach to retirement planning. Rajiv explains the essential planning steps and, most importantly, how to develop the framework for these elements to work in concert toward your most deeply held retirement goals.

Your retirement can be the exciting and fulfilling life you’ve always wanted it to be. Start by reading and sharing Rajiv’s important new book. And remember, Age On, everyone!

(originally reported at

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