Health beat: Signs of progress in hospital scorecard

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 7:48 PM

Minnesota's annual medical errors report is a paradox. It lauds hospitals for safety even as it lists how often they leave objects in surgery patients, commit harmful medication errors or allow patients to develop preventable bedsores.

It stokes the imagination with terms such as "surgery on the wrong body part," which sounds like an amputation of the wrong foot but more often means an anesthesia injection was misplaced.

And it suggests that Minnesota is getting safer, even as the number of reportable hospital mistakes rises. The report for 2011, released on Thursday, showed 316 errors -- the most in eight years of reporting.

State health officials acknowledge the contradictions but said the report has inspired significant progress. Fatal and disabling errors have declined; severe falls have declined as hospitals reduced reliance on sleep medications and required nurses to be at arm's length when at-risk patients moved.

"We used to call these 'never events,'" said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota's health commissioner. "It's unlikely we're ever going to get [to never], but they are all preventable. We want to get them down as low ... as possible."

Minnesota remains the only state that publicly identifies hospital mistakes, using 28 categories of preventable errors. The difference is noticeable to Dr. Mark Werner of Fairview Health Services, who a year ago was leading a clinic group in Virginia. "The state I came from doesn't do this kind of public report," he said. "I think, as a result, the commitment [there] to elevating quality and safety is probably not as strong as it is in Minnesota."

Werner is concerned how people view hospitals based on a few errors: "So you went down three here and you went up four there? I think we try to make trends out of things that are just the variations that occur" with small numbers.

Ehlinger said patients shouldn't be dissuaded from going to hospitals with errors but should ask how those errors will be prevented.

jolson@startribune.com. • 612-673-7744

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