About 50,000 people are alive today because U.S. hospitals committed 17 percent fewer medical errors in 2013 than in 2010, government health officials said on Tuesday.
The lower rate of fatalities from poor care and mistakes was one of several "historic improvements" in hospital quality and safety measured by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. They included a 9 percent decline in the rate of hospital-acquired conditions such as infections, bedsores and pneumonia from 2012 to 2013.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell is scheduled to announce the data on Tuesday at the CMS Healthcare Quality Conference in Baltimore. It is based on a detailed analysis of tens of thousands of medical records, but because data was collected differently before 2010, it is not possible to compare pre-2010 figures to later ones.
CMS is a unit of Burwell's department.
The deadly problem of hospital error burst into the national spotlight in 1999, when the Institute of Medicine estimated that as many as 98,000 people die every year because of hospital mistakes that allow patients to contract infections, fall, develop pneumonia from being on a ventilator, or suffer other serious but preventable harm.
In 2010, the HHS inspector general estimated that poor care in hospitals contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients covered by Medicare, which insures the disabled and those 65 or older, every year.
Officials, speaking to reporters on Monday ahead of Burwell's speech, offered several possible explanations for the steep decline in sometimes-fatal hospital-acquired injuries, infections and other conditions.
Hospitals have made a concerted effort to improve safety, spurred in large part by changes in how Medicare pays them. President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law requires CMS to reduce the reimbursement rate for hospitals that re-admit too many patients within 30 days, an indication of poor care the first time.
As a result of the improvements in hospital safety, 1.3 million fewer patients suffered a hospital-acquired condition in 2013 than if the 2010 rate had remained steady, CMS Deputy Administrator Dr. Patrick Conway told reporters. That produced savings of some $12 billion from avoidable costs, such as for treating a single bloodstream infection due to a catheter, at a $17,000.
"This is welcome news for patients and their families," Conway said, and represents an "unprecedented decline in patient harm in this country."