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Health Officials Cite Decline in Hospital-Acquired Illnesses and Death

By Rebecca Adams, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

December 2, 2014 -- Efforts to reduce the number of hospital patients who die or become sick from preventable problems picked up speed from 2012 to 2013, according to data the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released last week.

About 50,000 fewer fatalities linked to hospital-acquired problems were logged from 2010 to 2013 than would have been expected if the numbers had mirrored 2010 federal estimates.

About 1.3 million fewer hospital-acquired illnesses and deaths occurred from 2010 to 2013, which amounts to a 17 percent decline in hospital-acquired conditions. The quality improvements saved as much as $12 billion in health care costs, said HHS officials in a telephone briefing ahead of the data release.

Many improvements took place after Medicare's financial incentives to improve quality began making a major difference in hospitals' bottom lines.

Potential safety problems include dangerous drug interactions, bloodstream infections after a tube was put in to deliver drugs or IV fluids, pressure ulcers, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and infections on the parts of the body where a patient has had surgery. The biggest improvement was in the number of central-line infections.

The improvements mean that there were about 121 preventable problems for every 1,000 hospitalizations in 2013, compared to 145 adverse events per 1,000 hospitalizations in 2010.

The report updates information that the agency released in May that showed that there were about 132 problems for every 1,000 hospitalizations by 2012.

Concerns about hospitalized patients dying because of medical mistakes or infections gained national attention 15 years ago, when the Institute of Medicine found that as many as 98,000 people die each year from such dangers. Health policy experts likened the problem to a wide body airliner crashing every day.

HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in remarks last week that the health care system is changing to reward quality instead of the volume of services. The focus on prevention is driven by government payments and partnerships between hospitals and industry that HHS developed a few years ago.

"If we're being straightforward with one another, there is something else about our system that was broken for generations—and that's the way we chose to work on fixing it," she said at a conference on quality in Baltimore. "It used to be that all too often, government was over here, business was over there, nonprofits were someplace else. Today, we're working together like never before, and we have some historic progress to show for it."

Rebecca Adams can be reached at [email protected].

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