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Medical errors are down at veterans hospitals

A new report by the United States Veterans Health Administration, published in the journal Archives of Surgery, indicates that the rate of medical errors is down from recent years at the VHA. Throughout the general medical community in the United States, medical errors occur in one out of every 75,000 surgeries.

While the total number medical errors has gone done, the number of "close calls" has gone up, probably due to an increased awareness and increased openness about hospital mistakes. Between 2006 and 2009, there were 109 "real errors" at VHA hospitals, while there were 136 close calls.

So-called "real errors" are mistakes like operating on the wrong side of the body or on the wrong patient altogether -- and tragically, those were the two most common type of "real errors." Thankfully, the number of wrong-patient mistakes does not reflect that every affected patient actually received an unnecessary surgery. Wrong-patient procedures more typically involved the injection of diagnostic imaging dyes for tests such as CAT scans into the wrong patient.

In response to the high number of medical errors reported in the past, the VHA introduced checklists and instituted special training among its staff that stresses the importance of teamwork in preventing all forms of medical mistakes. The VHA wants to encourage people to speak up when they believe a mistake has been or is about to be made. A little embarrassment among colleagues is much preferable to a mistake that injures a patient.

The National Center for Patient Safety also advocates openness among physicians and medical staff. Communication is key in stopping these tragedies, which are virtually always preventable.

Source: Reuters Health, "Medical errors down at U.S. veterans' hospitals," Frederik Joelving, July 19, 2011

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