Unexpected Threats to Patient Safety

I’m writing this at the end of a two-day conference on improving patient safety. In case you didn’t know, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in this country, with inpatient errors the sixth leading cause.1,2 An estimated one in five of us experience an outpatient diagnostic error, and nearly every American will experience at least one such error in his or her lifetime. 3,4

I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do is get sick and have to seek medical care. It can, quite literally, kill you.

The good news is that a lot of very smart people are working on the problem. I got to hear from some of them during this meeting. (I’m writing up the proceedings for an article in a peer-reviewed journal—stay tuned.)

The main takeaway from the meeting is that threats to patient safety are not limited to the hospital or even the doctor’s office. Consider these hazards:
  • Cybersecurity. Now that our medical records are online, they are subject to theft and corruption. Just consider if a cyberterrorist hacks into your record and changes it to show that you have an allergy to a lifesaving medication you need. Or erases your record altogether. Yet too many health systems remain complacent about the risks.
  • Outpatient falls. Falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries and death from injuries in people 65+, and most occur in the home. Yet there are multiple ways to prevent falls, some as simple as putting in higher wattage light bulbs. 
  • Health information technology. Think electronic health records, which were supposed to improve the delivery of health care and make it easier on providers and patients. Instead, they have created a barrier between the patient and clinician; contribute to clinician burnout; and, as several studies show, can actually cause medical errors. All of which puts patients at risk.
  • Access to palliative care and hospice. Not only do patients who receive palliative care and, when needed, hospice, live longer than those who don’t, but the costs are far lower, patient satisfaction is higher, and hospitalization rates are lower. Yet far too few patients who need palliative care or hospice receive it.
Want to learn more? Follow Professional and Continuing Education at the University of North Texas on Facebook to get advanced notice about next year’s meeting.

Meeting Coverage

I’m planning meeting coverage for 2017. Here’s what I have scheduled so far. If you need coverage at these meetings—or any others—drop me a line.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. June 2-6, 2017. Chicago, Illinois.
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. May 6-9, 2017. San Diego, California.
  • European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. July 2-5, 2017. Geneva, Switzerland.

Interesting Projects

The sheer diversity of topics in health care never ceases to amaze me. The past few months I’ve covered meetings on patient safety and patient-centered care in oncology; written about managed care implications in rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic macular edema, and behavioral health; and continue work on a book about cybersecurity and an e-book turning cardiovascular guidelines into an interactive experience.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and holiday season. I’ll be back in 2017 with my next newsletter!



[1] Makary MA, Daniel N. Medical error—the third leading cause of death in the US. BMJ;2016;353:i2139
[2] James JT. A new, evidence-based estimate of patient harms associated with hospital care. J Patient Saf. 2013;9(3):122-128.
[3] Singh H, Meyer AN, Thomas EJ. The frequency of diagnostic errors in outpatient care: estimations from three large observational studies involving US adult populations. BMJ Qual Saf. 2014;23(9):727-31.
[4] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Improving diagnosis in health care. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
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