July 1, 2011

According to the World Health Organization, hospital patients anywhere in the world have about a 1 in 10 chance of being the victim of a health care error. And, from Portland to Katmandu, if you are that 1 out of 10 patients, you have about a 1 in 300 chance of dying from that medical mistake.

That seems extreme, but we know that, for example, the infection rate in hospitals has been on the rise. Worldwide, says WHO, hundreds of millions acquire infections in a health care setting every year. Most are preventable if health care workers observe basic hygiene guidelines, including washing their hands with soap and water before treating each patient.

Infection rates in developing and developed countries aren’t that far apart: 10 in 100 hospital patients in developing countries will acquire an infection during their stay, while 7 in 100 in developed countries will.

The differences between developed countries, though, is surprising: WHO’s data for the U.S. shows that 1.7 million infections and 100,000 deaths are related to hospital-acquired infections. In Europe, many more infections occur — 4.5 million — with a dramatically lower number of deaths (37,000).

WHO warns, too, that longer stays in intensive care put patients at even higher risk. In these cases, the infections are often borne by ventilators or urinary catheters that have not been properly sterilized. ICUs and neonatal units are the high risk departments in developing countries’ hospitals.

The agency, which is overseen by the United Nations, is not merely reporting on the issue, though. WHO developed a hospital safety checklist that is used in almost 100,000 hospitals around the globe. The checklist has proven its effectiveness: Hospitals that implement the tool have, on average, reduced surgery complications by 33 percent and cut their death rates by half.

A patient safety official with WHO believes that implementation of and adherence to the checklist could save half a million patients every year.

Source: Reuters, “Going into hospital far riskier than flying: WHO,” Stephanie Nebehay, 07/21/2011


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