updated 10/31/2003 6:04:33 PM ET 2003-10-31T23:04:33

Postoperative infections, surgical wounds accidentally opening and other often-preventable complications lead to more than 32,000 U.S. hospital deaths and more than $9 billion in extra costs annually, a report suggests.

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Researchers from the U.S. government’s Agency for Healthcare Research analyzed data on 18 complications sometimes caused by medical errors. They found that such complications contribute to 2.4 million extra days in the hospital each year.

The findings greatly underestimate the problem, since many other complications happen that are not listed in hospital administrative data, the researchers said.

The study follows a 1999 Institute of Medicine report that said medical mistakes kill anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 hospitalized Americans a year. That report focused national attention on the problem and led to numerous recommendations for improving safety.

The new report, based on data from 994 hospitals nationwide in 2000, provides a more detailed look at specific complications and the costs associated with each one.

Some preventable, some unavoidable
Many of the 18 complications, including medical objects left inside patients after surgery, are preventable medical errors. Some, like bleeding after surgery, might not always be avoidable, said Dr. Chunliu Zhan of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Zhan did the research with Dr. Marlene Miller, now at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

The study was published in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Given their staggering magnitude, these estimates are clearly sobering,” Drs. Saul Weingart and Lisa Iezzoni of Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said in an accompanying editorial.

The most serious complication was post-surgery sepsis — bloodstream infections — which occurred in 2,592 patients. Sepsis resulted in 11 extra days of hospitalization and $57,727 in extra costs per patient, plus a 22 percent higher risk of death.

Improved medical practices, including an emphasis on better hand-washing, might help reduce the rates, Zhan said.

Surgical wound openings were the second most serious complication, resulting in nine extra days of hospitalization, $40,323 in extra costs and a nearly 10 percent higher death rate.

Zhan said the figures do not capture all complication-related costs.

For example, one common injury — trauma during vaginal childbirth without use of forceps or other instruments — resulted in virtually no extra hospitalization costs or deaths but probably led to other complications in mothers or their infants, the researchers said. There were 51,223 such injuries studied.

Zhan said his study does not answer whether progress has been made since the 1999 Institute of Medicine report.

His agency is among many working on reducing medical errors and complications. Among other things, the agency recently developed a fact sheet listing steps patients can take to get safer treatment, including questioning doctors about what to expect from surgery and asking about which hospital would be best for their particular condition.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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