updated 10/27/2004 1:58:40 PM ET 2004-10-27T17:58:40

Citing statistics that one in 10 hospital patients worldwide are victims of preventable medical mistakes, the World Health Organization on Wednesday launched an initiative to create a “culture of safety” in health care.

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“Improved health care is perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement of the last 100 years,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook. “Improving patient safety in clinics and hospitals is in many cases the best way there is to protect the advances we have made in health care.”

The initiative, the World Alliance for Patient Safety, will bring together scientists and researchers to share strategies and practices for reducing medical mistakes. Among the participants are the United States, Britain and Australia.

High death toll
WHO cited figures from various health agencies that 10 percent of hospital patients suffer from medical mistakes, which can lead to serious disability or even death. In the United States, a study by the federal Institute of Medicine estimated in 1999 that 44,000 to 98,000 hospital deaths annually are caused by “medical errors” — claiming more lives than car accidents, breast cancer or AIDs.

“Human error is inevitable,” said Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer of the British Department of Health and chair of the WHO coalition on patient safety, By raising awareness of the issue, Donaldson said, “we can reduce error, but most importantly, we can reduce its impact.”

One-fourth of all medical errors are caused by medication errors, Donaldson said. The causes can range from sloppy notetaking — especially doctors’ illegible handwriting — to different medications that come in deceptively similar packaging. Patients may be given too high or too low a dose, the wrong medication, or no medication when one is needed.

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