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Obama challenges hospitals to dramatically cut mistakes, readmissions

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Barack Obama
President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, April 12, 2011. The Obama administration is calling on hospitals and medical centers to meet two major goals by the end of 2013: to reduce medical mistakes by 40 percent and reduce preventable hospital readmission rates by 20 percent.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Just this month, the journal Health Affairs released a study that found one out of every three patients admitted to a hospital suffered some kind of injury due to a medical error.

Mistakes such as the wrong dose of medication or lack of communication, for instance, can cause a variety of problems -- everything from bed sores to infections to falls to even death. 

The Obama administration is calling on hospitals and medical centers to meet two major goals by the end of 2013: to reduce medical mistakes by 40 percent and reduce preventable hospital readmission rates by 20 percent. The so-called Partnership for Patients program will also disseminate information identifying what works and doesn't work in reducing errors throughout the United States.

The head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Dr. Donald Berwick, said if one medical center in one part of the country can reduce medical errors, others can too.

"If Nationwide Childrens' Hospital in Columbus can reduce surgical complications by 60 percent, why can't all Americans benefit in life and health and security from the very best care known to any American," Berwick said. "Why not bring excellence to full scale. That's what this is about."

The federal health care law will make available $1 billion dollars for research and demonstration projects around the country.

Berwick announced the program as a new Associated Press poll found support for the health care overhaul at its lowest level ever since the law passed -- 35 percent, while opposition is running at 45 percent. The poll found that among senior citizens, support for the law fell below 30 percent for the first time.

Despite the law's unpopularity, several Minnesota groups have already signed up to meet the patient safety goals, including UnitedHealth Group and Mayo Clinic. 

Mayo's director of quality, Dr. Steven Swensen, says the clinic will step up its error prevention efforts whether it gets federal funding under the new program or not. He says the administration's goals are doable.

"It'll save tens of thousands of lives in this country and tens of billions of dollars and I think we're up to that, Swensen said. "Whether it's 20 percent or 40 percent for Mayo Clinic doesn't matter. We're going for more than that, and we'll continue and accelerate that work."

Tania Daniels, vice president for Patient Safety at the Minnesota Hospital Association, says Minnesota is in a good position to pursue demonstration projects. 

Daniels says the group has already conducted a pilot program of 13 hospitals throughout the state to improve communication when patients get transferred from one facility to another. She says something as basic as putting important information in a patient's chart on top, can reduce errors.

"We were finding that some instances there were hundreds of pages of documentation that would travel with the patient, making it very difficult for that followup provider to find what they needed," Daniels said. "So the pilot was really to find out what is that key information that needs to be up front in the first few pages of documentation to make it easier for that follow up provider."

Key information such as if the patient is at risk for falling or when they had their last dose of medication.

The Minnesota Medical Association said the administration's goals are realistic. A spokesperson for the Minnesota Nurses Association also said the goals are doable, but reiterated a theme that increasing patient nurse ratios would also improve safety.

Obama administration officials say the overall goal is to prevent nearly 2 million patient injuries and save more than 60,000 lives over the next three years. They also save the program could reduce health costs up to $35 billion, including $10 billion the Medicare program over that same timeframe.